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Wine for at least €10 a bottle? Here's what we know about new alcohol price laws so far...

The government wants to put a floor on prices to cut down on problem drinking.

Source: Rennett Stowe

HEALTH MINISTER LEO Varadkar yesterday announced new laws aimed at tackling alcohol abuse – targeting everything from advertising to health-warning labels.

But one of the most important – and controversial – measures will be the introduction of a new, minimum price on alcohol.

While no official floor price has been put forward, it has been suggested the change could push the minimum cost of a bottle of wine above €10 and a bottle of spirits over €30.

That has led to concerns that responsible drinkers, particularly pensioners and those on low incomes, would suffer alongside those consuming harmful amounts.

Here’s what we know about new alcohol price laws so far:

What are the plans… and why introduce them now?

The basic aim is to help cut alcohol consumption and problem drinking by putting a bottom limit on alcohol prices.

The figure would be set according to a “minimum unit price”, which means the floor cost for any drink would be based on its alcohol content.

Drinks like spirits, which are cheap when measured against their strength, will have a higher minimum sale price than low-alcohol beer, for example.

The government says this will work because heavy drinkers and young people with little disposable income tended to favour alcohol products which were “strong and cheap”.

Its goal is to bring across-the-board alcohol consumption in Ireland down to the OECD average, which would require a cut of about 25% in peoples’ consumption rates.

According to Varadkar, the plan could be before the Dáil in summer – although it was likely to take up to 12 months before the regulations became law.

Community First Response Schemes Health Minister Leo Varadkar Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

He said it was time for action on the issue after four years of debate, although he didn’t elaborate on the reason for the delay.

This morning, former junior health minister Róisín Shortall said politicians had traditionally been slow to address alcohol-related issues because the “alcohol industry is very powerful within this country and has very good access to a lot of senior politicians”.

Any change will mainly affect the supermarket trade as pub and restaurant prices would likely come in above the cap.

The plan has been widely welcomed, including by the pubs lobby, but the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland – which represents producers – has been tight-lipped about its attitude towards the minimum price cap.

Guinness owner's new brewery opened Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the launch of Guinness's new brewery last year Source: Niall Carson

So has anyone else tried this… and does it work?

Canada was the first country to introduce minimum alcohol prices and research there has shown a 10% increase in the floor cost has lead to an overall cut in consumption of 3.4%.

That drop in drinking has led to knock-on reductions in alcohol-related deaths and health problems.

The minimum prices in the country vary from province to province, with some regions regulating only high-alcohol products while others have floor rates for every main category of booze.

In 2012, the Scottish government became the first in Europe to pass comprehensive minimum alcohol pricing laws – which would set a floor sale price of 50p (€0.66) per unit of pure alcohol.

Meanwhile, the UK government has stepped back from plans to set a minimum sale price of 40p (€0.53) per alcohol unit – instead banning the sale of “below-cost” alcoholic drinks.

In announcing the Irish plans yesterday, Varadkar referred to Sheffield University alcohol-policy modelling – which had been used to guide plans for both Scotland and Canada.

Research, based on the model, predicted that introducing a minimum 45p per-unit alcohol price in the UK would lead to 624 fewer deaths and 23,700 fewer hospital admissions every year after the restriction had been in place for a decade.

Wetherspoon lifts ban on Heineken products Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/Press Association Images

And can we do this?

The Irish government obviously thinks so, but Varadkar will be sweating on the outcome of a European court case before the laws are set in stone.

The Scottish whisky lobby has been fighting the country’s minimum pricing proposal and the plans have so far been tied up in a series of legal battles.

Most recently the laws were referred to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on whether they breached free-trade regulations, with five major wine-producing nations – France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria – all joining the fight against the plans.

A final ruling is due later this year and the Irish proposal, which closely resembles the Scottish regulations, will be put on the skids if the appeal is successful.

shutterstock_115009072 Source: Shutterstock/lenetstan

What does this mean for me?

It depends on the final price decided, but the laws will probably spell the end of €5 bottles of wine and sub-€2 beer at the big supermarket chains.

The Irish Independent today reported the Health Department was “examining” an alcohol unit price of between 90c and €1.10.

At the high end, the floor price for the average bottle of wine (with an alcohol level of 13%) would be pushed over €10.

A 500ml can of beer (5% alcohol) would cost at least €2.75 and a 700ml bottle of spirits (40% alcohol) over €30 if the unit price came in at the top of the range.

In contrast, the proposed Scottish minimum price would mean an average bottle of wine would cost at least £5 (€6.63), while a standard, 500ml can of beer would have to be sold for at least £1.25 (€1.66).

However a spokesman for the Health Department told TheJournal.ie the figures the Independent quoted were only “speculation” as the plans were in an early stage of being put together.

Yesterday, Varadkar said no prices had been decided but they would “need to be sufficiently high to eliminate very cheap alcohol … but not so high that it affects most consumers”.

Aren’t we already paying a lot for alcohol?

In a word, yes. Alcohol drinks are already more expensive in Ireland, on average, than anywhere else in the EU except Finland, according to the latest figures from Eurostat.

Prices in the Republic are more than double those in Germany and about 86% higher than in France.

A big share of that money flows to the government in taxes – which are worth nearly €5 on a €9 bottle of wine.

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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