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Alcohol industry wins, public health loses at World Cup 2014

Britain has permitted pubs in England and Wales to stay open longer during England matches with a late kick-off. It’s expected to lead to an upsurge in ER visits.

Spain head coach Vicente del Bosque, center, stands in front of a Budweiser sign during a training session on Tuesday in Curitiba, Brazil.
REUTERS/Henry Romero

Brazil may be favored to win the 2014 World Cup, which begins on Thursday, but the real winner will be the alcohol industry — and the real loser will be public health — according to a troubling article published today in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal).

Reporter Jonathan Gornall points first to how the British government, under immense pressure from “drink companies” did a “humiliating U-turn over its alcohol policies” earlier this year and loosened its licensing laws to permit pubs in England and Wales to stay open longer during England matches with a late kick-off.

That change in policy, which is supposed to be implemented only during occasions of “exceptional international, national or local significance” (such as Prince William’s wedding in 2011 and the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012), is expected to help the alcohol industry reap an extra $34 million between now and the July 13 World Cup final.

But it is also expected to lead to an upsurge in emergency room visits. For, as Gornall reports, during the 2010 World Cup, ER departments in British hospitals saw a 37.5 percent increase in injuries caused by assaults on the days England played.

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And that was without extended drinking hours.

FIFA’s ‘obscene’ demands

“But if the scale of alcohol’s influence on the British government and English football is extraordinary [18 of 20 teams in the U.K.’s Premier League are sponsored by alcohol companies], it is nothing compared with its efforts on the world stage,” writes Gornall.

He explains why:

The Federation Internationale de Football Association [FIFA], football’s international governing body, has a long record of championing the financial interests of its commercial partners, including Budweiser, the tournament’s official beer partner, by imposing extreme conditions on governments around the world.

One of the most controversial is that a host country must waive tax on any profits made by [FIFA]’s commercial partners during a World Cup, an “obscene” condition that will leave sponsors such as Budweiser free to walk away with every Real they pocket, depriving Brazil of an estimated [$523 million] in revenue, according to the antipoverty campaign group InspirAction, the Spanish partner of Christian Aid.

“The price of these tax breaks for corporate giants will be paid by people living in poverty in Brazil,” said Isable Ortigosa of InspirAction in a statement last month. “The millions that [FIFA] demands for its sponsors should be used for the benefit of Brazil’s many poor communities, not to enrich the already powerful.”

A return to ‘dark days of violence’

If alcohol companies are among the winners of the World Cup, public health is among the losers.

“In Brazil, public health experts fear one legacy of the World Cup will be a return to the dark days of alcohol fueled violence in stadiums,” writes Gornell. “[FIFA] has secured the usual tax breaks for its ‘family’ [of corporate sponsors] but has gone even further on behalf of Budweiser, its alcohol partner [for the past 25 years], by bullying the Brazilian government into abandoning its longstanding ban on alcohol in sports stadiums, introduced in an attempt to end often fatal violence between rival fans at games.”

It’s “shocking” that FIFA “can come to a country and make it change its laws,” Dr. Ronaldo Larenjeira, a professor of psychiatry at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, told Gornell. “We have been very active in trying to embarrass the government on this issue, but in the end the alcohol industry has won. At the moment it is running the show, more or less as tobacco ran Formula One for many years.”

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He worries that the reversal of the alcohol ban in sports stadiums will become permanent. “The sports minister has said all along that he supports this change, and, worse than that, he supports the idea that after the World Cup alcohol should continue to be allowed in the stadiums,” said Larenjeira. “The power of the alcohol industry is incredible.”

A history of soccer-related violence

He has good reason to worry. Brazil has one of the worst records in the world for soccer-related violence. A 2009 study found that from 1999 through 2008 an average of 4.2 Brazilians soccer fans were killed each year in or around a stadium during violent clashes with rival fans. Between 2004 and 2008, that number climbed to an average of 5.6 per year, and in 2007 and 2008, 7 Brazilian fans were killed each year.

The violence has continued unabated since then, as sports reporter David Goldblatt noted in a Guardian column last year. As examples, Goldblatt points to a 2012 incident in which “gun-wielding Corinthians fans killed a Palmieras fan and injured three others in a gigantic brawl on the north side of São Paulo,” and to a horrific event that took place last summer during an amateur soccer game in Brazil’s northern state of Maranhao.

“A referee stabbed a player to death on the field,” writes Goldblatt. “He was then stoned to death and decapitated by the crowd.”

Alcohol only helps to fuel this violence, of course.

More political arm-twisting

England and Brazil are not the only countries that have found it difficult to say no to the demands of FIFA and the alcohol industry.

“Such is the power of [FIFA] that Qatar, a strictly Muslim country with tough drinks laws, has already agreed to sell alcohol in fan zones at [its World Cup] games in 2022,” writes Gornall.

And last year the Irish government decided to back down from its plans to ban alcohol companies from sponsoring sporting events by 2016.

Ireland’s medical community came out strongly in favor of the ban, but it was the alcohol industry with its much better funded campaign against the ban that prevailed.  

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The industry knows it needs sport — especially soccer — to keep its worldwide profits growing.

“In a sector that’s struggling to maintain volumes, there’s a lot to play for,” explains Gornell. “When it released its full year results in March 2011, [Anheuser-Busch InBev] credited Budweiser’s sponsorship of the 2010 World Cup as a key factor in an overall 3.4% growth in volumes for the company, with Budweiser compensating for worse performing brands by growing sales by an incredible 36.1%.”

Unfortunately, Gornell’s article is behind a paywall on the BMJ website. It is one in an ongoing series of article BMJ is publishing on the influence of the alcohol industry on public heatlh.