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Costs for local shops and the Guinness Christmas ad... just two stumbling blocks facing alcohol bill

The bill seeks to restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol across the country.

Image: PA Archive/PA Images

TROUBLE IS BREWING in Leinster House with the government’s announcement this week that it prioritising the controversial Public Health Alcohol Bill.

The bill, which is being backed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris, seeks to restrict the sale and advertising of alcohol across the country.

It has been in the headlines before when it was being promoted by the former junior health minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. However, the bill hit a stumbling block back then when members of the Independent Alliance, and even TDs and Senators within the Fine Gael party voiced their opposition.

But it is not just politicians: Senator Frances Black has said lobbyists are lining up to block the bill.

So, what is it about?

There are a number of areas the proposed legislation addresses. The bill will set minimum pricing – beneath which alcohol cannot be sold. Varadkar said that minimum unit pricing will effectively ban low-cost sales of alcoholic products.

“This measure has the potential to really impact on people who consume alcohol in a harmful and hazardous fashion and it can do so quickly,” he said.

The introduction of labelling on alcohol products is also included, which will result in clear warnings about the danger alcohol poses to our health.

Labels on alcohol products will contain health warnings and advice, details of the amount of pure alcohol each beverage contains and a calorie count.

The bill will also make it illegal to market or advertise alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children or that makes it look glamourous.

This will include restrictions on broadcast marketing and advertising, cinema advertising, outdoor advertising, print media and the regulation of sponsorship by alcohol companies.

This obviously is of concern to those in the industry, with the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) (which represents alcoholic drinks manufacturers and suppliers in Ireland) stating that the new rules will have “far-reaching negative consequences for alcohol advertising”.

This week, it used the famous Guinness Christmas advert to illustrate its point.

In turn, Alcohol Action Ireland hit back, saying that the measures are good for society because the drinks industry will “no longer be able to hijack our every moment, reflect every emotion or share every success” in ads such as the Christmas Guinness one.

In a statement, it said that Diageo can have “functional promotion” but “can’t have Christmas too”.

Speaking about the reference advertisement, Eunan McKinney, head of communications and advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland said:

Guinness seeks to capture our sentimental memories of Christmas so that they can be portray themselves as essential to the spirit of Christmas. In essence, the ABFI claim illustrates what they see as an infringement on big alcohol’s ‘acquisition’ of Christmas.
This is precisely the link these modest measures seek to influence in the future.

He said the new regulations will, over time, reshape our conscious relationship with alcohol, adding that the regulations proposed on the content of advertisement will affect that change, but without removing businesses ability to market.

Impact on small rural shops 

While those in the drinks industry obviously take issue with advertising restrictions that they believe will impact their business, the aspect that many politicians have a problem with is the separating of alcohol from other products in small shops.

For this reason Fine Gael senators blocked the bill from passing last October and earlier this year. Alcohol Action Ireland argues that this measure is crucial in helping bring an end to the present situation, where alcohol is being sold as if it is just another everyday item along with bread and milk.

“Alcohol is not a grocery and it’s time we stopped treating it like one,” the organisation says. However, TDs and senators, particularly from rural areas, believe the cost of what has become known as the ‘booze curtain’ rule will cause huge financial damage to small corner shops.

The political opposition prevented the bill from progressing and caused significant problems for the former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Now though, Harris and Varadkar are pushing ahead with the bill and are not taking kindly to those in the party they feel are speaking out of turn on the issue.

Political leadership 

At the launch of the Rutland Centre’s second annual recovery month addiction awareness campaign this summer, Harris made known exactly what he thinks of his colleagues who block this bill.

Every political party stands up in the Dáil and tells yourself and colleagues in the media they support action on alcohol. Well, now it’s time for them to show that. You can make every Trojan horse argument you wish to dilute this legislation, but at the end of the day if we are serious about showing political leadership on alcohol, rather than political platitudes, we need to get on with delivering this legislation.

He acknowledged concerns about small businesses and said he would address the issues with an amendment but was adamant the bill would not be watered down.

Minister of State for the OPW with special responsibility for Flooding, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran said last year that he left Corcoran-Kennedy ”under no illusion as to their total opposition of the segregation element of the bill” when it was under her remit.

He told TheJournal.ie that he has yet to see any amendment put forward by Harris which would deal with the financial implications placed on smaller shops.

Without the amendment, he said he cannot support the bill. “I haven’t seen any change put forward yet for shops. I can’t stand by it because it will cost too much money for smaller businesses,” he said.

He added that there is “far too much red tape” that is benefiting the “big people” and making “the smaller people suffer”.

Moran said he wanted to be clear that he supports the other aspects of the bill, and is anxious to see it “get over the line” with a “satisfactory amendment”.

The bill, which has been debated since around 2015, should now pass because it has the support of Fianna Fáil.

“We need to ensure it passes. Public health and minimum pricing were key issues,” said Micheál Martin at his party’s think-in this week.

“It is time to get on with it and get it passed,” he added. Harris said he is keen for the bill to proceed through the Dáil before Halloween.

The bill allows for a review of the new measures to be carried out after a period of two years to establish if they are achieving the policy objections.

Read; 12 cans of Heineken for €20? This is how minimum pricing could affect your pocket>

Read: ‘Lobbyists are lining up to kill the Alcohol Bill’>

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