Review of Ireland’s Alcohol Policy Focuses on Factors Influencing Policy Change

Posted on: 30 April 2015

Policy makers are not convinced that tougher alcohol control measures are consistent with the ‘national mood’, according to new research conducted at the School of Social Work in Trinity College Dublin.

Irish policy makers have "paid lip service to the views of public health experts" but they have not ultimately been persuaded that implementation of tougher statutory controls would command sufficient popular support or deliver such unequivocally positive outcomes as to justify their adoption, according to an analysis of recent Irish alcohol policy initiatives undertaken by Professor Shane Butler, Associate Professor in Social Work.

In a paper entitled Ireland’s Public Health (Alcohol) Bill: Policy Window or Political Sop?, published in the peer-reviewed journal Contemporary Drug Problems, Professor Butler uses Kingdon’s “policy window model” to analyse Ireland’s evolving alcohol policy process. 

Substantial policy changes only occurs on the “relatively rare” occasions when three factors  – problems, policies and political will – come together to provide a window of opportunity for policy change, Professor Butler explains.

According to the study, factors influencing the political stream include:

  • The dominance of consensual, social partnership ideology which contributed to a national mood which would have looked askance at any suggestion that the drinks industry be excluded from the alcohol policy development process
  • Wariness  of policy developments which might be seen to challenge multinational business interests
  • Institutional governmental factors including turnover of key personnel particularly cabinet ministers and dismantling of cross-cutting structures in the public sector which facilitated “joined -up” responses to complex issues

His study outlines how, for the last 30 years, Irish policy makers have been repeatedly told by public health experts that “ traditional liberal approaches to problem prevention and management such as public education and awareness campaigns, and treatment and rehabilitation systems” were relatively ineffective and that, if it really intended to tackle the issue, government should “implement measures to make alcohol more expensive, less accessible at retail level, and less normalised culturally through advertising, promotion, and marketing”.

The publication in 2012 of the Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy “appeared to signal the end of ad hoc alcohol policy making in Ireland,” according to Professor Butler and he notes that in the wake of the publication of this strategy, the Irish Government announced in October 2013 that it had approved a number of alcohol policy measures to be incorporated into a Public Health (Alcohol) Bill to be drafted and enacted as quickly as possible. Included in this were legislative proposals specifically targeting a change in Irish alcohol purchasing habits – minimum unit pricing of alcohol and structural separation of alcohol in retail outlets. He notes that since the question of minimum unit pricing is still the subject of European legal proceedings, this measure is not guaranteed. He also notes that recommendations for statutory ban on drinks industry sponsorship of sporting and other major public events were not included, having been deemed “politically unacceptable”.

He concludes, that while some specific public health measures may be introduced, the various ‘streams’ of the Irish policy process have not joined together in an “unambiguous, consensual acceptance of the public perspective on alcohol”, and further that the ‘political stream’ has not to date deemed tougher alcohol control measures to be consistent with the national mood.

“The proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is not quite the ‘‘landmark’’ event claimed by the junior minister at the time of its announcement in October 2013. Considered from the perspective of Kingdon’s framework, there is no reason to regard the development as reflecting a policy ‘‘window,’’ since the three streams—problems, policies, and politics—have obviously not come together in any significant way.”

“As in all democratic systems, Irish government controls the politics stream and is the ultimate arbiter of what alcohol policy developments are in keeping with the ‘‘national mood’’ and acceptable across all governmental sectors. It seems, then, that while successive Irish governments have paid lip service to the views of public health experts, they have not ultimately been persuaded that implementation of alcohol policies based upon such views would command sufficient popular support or deliver such unequivocally positive outcomes as to justify their adoption.”

The research has just been published in the peer-reviewed journal Contemporary Drug Problems. The paper can be viewed here.


Medai Coverage:

Irish Examiner, April 28th, 2015, Government won't tackle drink problem, claims expert

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