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Covid restrictions make the argument not to bring in minimum alcohol pricing 'even more tenuous'

Health Minister Simon Harris has said the government’s preference is to bring the measure in at the same time as Northern Ireland.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

ALMOST TWO YEARS on from passing laws allowing for a minimum price on units of alcohol, the government has failed to implement them and campaigners say the current Covid-19 crisis means the logic in enacting them is “is as relevant today, if not more so, than any other time”. 

The argument had been made that if this jurisdiction brought the measure in before Northern Ireland did, it could drive consumers over the border but this claim is “even more tenuous” given the current stay-at-home guidelines according to Alcohol Action Ireland. 

Answering a parliamentary question last week, Health Minister Simon Harris said he has written to his Northern Irish counterpart Robin Swann.

He said he was “willing to wait for simultaneous introduction” but added he wasn’t willing to “wait forever” to implement this “important public health measure”. 

Bringing in minimum pricing doesn’t appear to be something that will happen very soon in Northern Ireland, however.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for the Northern Irish Department of Health said it will be “considering the measure” and added it wanted to see what effect this measure was having in Scotland and Wales, which have already brought it in. 

What is minimum pricing?

Minimum unit pricing is a set cost below which alcohol can’t be sold. It is a section of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 that has not yet been commenced.

The Act states that the cheapest price for a gram of alcohol is 10 cent. A standard drink has 10 grams of alcohol in it, meaning the lowest price for one standard drink is now €1.

A standard drink is half a pint of beer/lager/stout, a small 100ml glass of wine or a pub measure of spirits.

This might sound cheap, but most drinks are marked up in price for retailers and pubs/clubs so it will mainly affect very cheap drinks with strong alcohol content. 

Analysis from TheJournal.ie has shown that the cost of many major brands of beer wouldn’t be required to increase beyond their current level under minimum pricing. 

There are several studies that point to only the most “harmful drinkers” being affected by minimum pricing, while responsible drinkers on modest incomes aren’t penalised.

After the measure was brought in in Scotland, alcohol sales went down. According to a study in the British Medical Journal, “it appears to have been successful in reducing the amount of alcohol purchased by households in Scotland”. 

Public Health Alcohol Bill

Long-delayed and heavily lobbied upon, the Public Health Alcohol Bill was finally enacted in late-2018. 

As well as minimum pricing, it also provides for restrictions around alcohol advertising and what warning labels would need to be on products. 

All along, the policy from the government here had been to implement minimum pricing at the same time as Northern Ireland. 

Minister Harris said last week that if both jurisdictions implemented the measures at the same time it would “ensure that its effectiveness cannot be diminished by the availability of cheaper alcohol across the border”. 

However, as Northern Ireland didn’t have a government in place for over two years this was effectively put on hold. 

Despite the Irish government passing the laws that would allow them to bring in minimum pricing in October 2018, it has so far held back. 

With the Stormont Assembly now back up and running and still no sign of this measure, it looks likely that it’ll be the job of the new government here of whether to plough ahead anyway.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Eunan McKinney who is the head of communication and advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland said with the gap between north and south, “it has been clear, for some time, that this may be an insurmountable matter”

“[We] believe the rationale to enact and commence minimum unit pricing is as relevant today, if not more so, than any other time,” he said.

“The issue at the heart of this measure is to ensure that cheap, strong alcohol, widely available throughout the off-sales retail landscape, is removed from the market.

This will ensure a modest reduction in consumption amongst the hazardous drinkers and to a lesser degree the whole of a drinking population. This will lead to reduction in acute alcohol episodes and better health outcomes for the drinkers of such cheap, strong alcohol.

Specifically in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis -  with pubs closed and alcohol only available off-trade – McKinney said his organisation had witnessed “reckless behaviour” in the pricing of some alcohol in shops. 

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“The current demand from the drinking population with on-sales prohibited, for alcohol from off-sales has fuelled a price-war within the alcohol industry,” he said. “Many products, including premium brands, have been retailing at between 25 and 50% discount of what would be a minimum unit price.”

McKinney added that it wasn’t just the price of alcohol that influenced whether shoppers went north of the border, and it also depending on factors like the exchange rate, the VAT differential and also how close they were to the border.

For many, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, that option is closed to them now anyway. 

“The current COVID travel restrictions, were they to prevail, certainly makes the argument even more tenuous,” he added.

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Sean Murray

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