We don’t see alcohol as the problem; it’s a solution

Not long ago I attended my first AA meeting. Before you get the wrong idea: The event was organised to give health professionals a better understanding of the important work Alcoholics Anonymous does.

During lunch, one of the organisers said to me: “You doctors keep referring to alcohol as the ‘problem’, but alcoholics see it as a ‘solution’. That’s a major source of misunderstanding.” It was one of the lessons I was hoping to take away from the meeting.

The reason I attended is the number of alcohol related problems I see in my practice. Not a day goes by without hearing personal tragedies caused by booze. And what’s worrying: all ages are affected. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that about five million Australians aged 14 or older were victim of an alcohol-related incident in 2013. According to the survey people feel that alcohol is our most concerning drug issue.

Yet, we’re still relying on income derived from alcohol sponsorship.

Industry sponsorship: why?

An article in this month’s edition of Addiction shows that university students who play sport have a higher risk of problem drinking when they or their club or team are sponsored by the alcohol industry. Of course this is nothing new. We know that alcohol advertising and media exposure are effective in getting young people to start drinking or to drink more if they already use alcohol.

But what about older people? The same issue of Addiction features an interesting study suggesting that people aged 50-64 drink less in countries with stricter advertising rules.

One argument for alcohol industry sponsorship is that sport wouldn’t survive without it (It seems like more people feel that alcohol is not a ‘problem’ but a ‘solution’). However, sport has survived the ban on cigarette sponsorship; why wouldn’t it survive an alcohol ban? Interestingly, advertising revenue for TV and radio continued to increase after the ban on cigarette ads in 1976.

A ban doesn’t seem to affect major sporting events either. France is a good example: The country does not allow alcohol sponsorship but hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2007, and will be hosting the UEFA Football Championships in 2016.

What’s the point?

Back to my day-to-day work: The numbers are telling – in the average Australian GP practice about 27 percent of patients are at-risk drinkers. It seems pointless for GPs to counsel people about their alcohol use once or twice a year, when they get hammered with alcohol ads at the sports club every week.

I’m all for a total ban on alcohol sponsorship – what about you?