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Calling time on excessive lobbying

14 Dec 2016

Dara Gantly on whether we need a new protocol to tackle intensive lobbying by the drinks industry

So, have the drinks industry been buying rounds for our politicians again? Apologies for the ‘indelicate phrasing’, but that’s what it looks like sometimes from the outsider, when I read that the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is to be delayed yet again due to unprecedented lobbying by manufacturers and retailers looking to water down its measures.

Of course, this is nothing new, with all-too-familiar echoes in abandoned provisions by a Fianna Fáil-led government in 2009. Back then the Transport Minister Noel Dempsey had awful trouble trying to push through a new lower blood alcohol level from 80mg/100ml to 50mg/100ml, which finally came into law in October 2011, along with the testing of drivers involved in collisions the previous June.

More recently, it has been Fine Gael under pressure, with talk of a revolt within its parliamentary party, leading to the decision to postpone further debate until next year. Why? The Bill requires that alcohol be displayed separately from other products in shops so that customers, and particularly children, do not regard it in the same light as other commodities, such as milk or bread. Sounds sensible, right?

However, commercial outlets have argued that the cost of such separation measures (erecting screens etc) would be prohibitive. Really? Is this not just another delaying tactic? As we debate the cost of this measure, minimum unit pricing, health labelling and restrictions on advertising are all also left on the legislative shelf.

To its credit, the RCPI has been among the most vocal supporters of the new Bill, calling recently for all TDs and Senators to “stand up for health and the health services” by supporting the legislation. A delegation from the College even addressed the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party late last month on the issue.

This delegation, led by RCPI President Prof Frank Murray, outlined to Party members how the health services were being overwhelmed as a result of our unhealthy relationship with alcohol, with three people dying in Ireland every day due to its consumption: one daily death due to a fall, fight or car crash, with two other deaths from cancers, liver failure and other alcohol-related conditions.

University Hospital Limerick, according to Consultant Gastroenterologist Dr Maeve Skelly, also part of the delegation, regularly had the highest trolley numbers in the country, and the issue of admission and access to hospital beds in the Mid-West was directly related to the number of patients with alcohol-related disease.

But do we need to look at this another way? Elsewhere in this week’s paper, you can read about how Government ministers and political advisers were advised earlier this year not to engage directly with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry in relation to the price and supply of medicines, under a new protocol issued by the Department of Health (DoH).

The protocol, contained in a letter from the DoH to the Director General of the HSE Tony O’Brien, sets out the policy for future engagement with pharmaceutical market participants and advisers, and the procedure to be followed when any requests for meetings with officials of any Government Department, including advisers to Departments or Ministers, are made. In short, the politicians or their advisers should not engage directly with any market participants or their advisers, according to the DoH, which advised that the party seeking the meeting should be told to make contact with the State’s Pharmaceutical Pricing and Supply Strategy Group.

Could a similar protocol not be issued for the drinks/retail industry vis-à-vis the Alcohol Bill? Pass all enquiries for meetings or lobbying to a designated group, and be done with it. Instead, we see Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor responding to queries in the Dáil on November 15 from Fianna Fáil’s Deputy Eamon Scanlon on the likely cost for small retailers on meeting the requirements of the Bill. And there are many more examples.

As you may be aware, the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 commenced on September 1, 2015, and with it the requirement for those who lobby what are called ‘designated public officials’ to register and report on their lobbying activities every four months.

In the first reporting period (Sept– Dec ’15) more than 1,100 persons and organisations registered and over 2,500 returns were posted in the online Register of Lobbying. You may be surprised (or not) to learn that Health was the public policy area with by far the greatest lobbying — with nearly twice the activity of the nearest sector, Justice and Equality.

Interestingly, enforcement provisions in relation to the Regulation of Lobbying Act will commence on January 1, 2017, which will see new powers introduced to investigate and prosecute contraventions of the Act. I wonder who will be among the first to be sanctioned.

Lobbying is unfortunately a part of a normal, modern democracy, and certainly is not always a bad thing. But for certain issues — like the control of alcohol — normal rules should not apply.

So to echo Prof Murray, our politicians need to take a “brave step forward” for the common good, and call time on alcohol lobbying.

The post Calling time on excessive lobbying appeared first on Irish Medical Times.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Irish Medical Times: Opinion