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Cheap booze: Government still stalling on minimum alcohol pricing as limits on off-licence hours unlikely

A minister has said it would risk “undermining the effectiveness” of minimum pricing if it’s not implemented at the same as Northern Ireland.

Image: Shutterstock/Nadya So

THE GOVERNMENT HAS no plans to press ahead with the introduction of minimum pricing on alcohol, despite calls for it to be considered as a tool in the country’s “Covid battle plan”. 

With ideas such as closing off licences earlier being floated by ministers to try to curb large house parties and social gatherings during Covid-19, the government still has no plans just yet to implement the measure which would specifically target the cheapest and strongest alcohol products.

A frequently-cited reason for not implementing this measure that was passed into law as part of the Public Health Alcohol Bill two years ago this month is that the government wanted to introduce the measure at the same time as Northern Ireland to avoid people travelling over the border to buy cheaper alcohol.

However, with the whole country under Level 3 restrictions, people are urged not to leave their counties. At the same time, the government has been putting the emphasis on adherence and enforcement with the public health measures. 

On a number of occasions, there have been calls to curb alcohol sales after footage of large numbers socialising and drinking provoked an outcry

The Irish Independent reported today that one minister suggested closing off licences earlier to try to clamp down on house parties. Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan also told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne today the measure should be looked at as well as the volume of alcohol that can be purchased at any one time.

He said: “When you see slabs of cans being taken home you know that they are not being taken home for an after-dinner aperitif.”

Vintners have also called for restrictions on the sale of alcohol if clusters of Covid-19 are being traced back to house parties and gatherings.

However, TheJournal.ie understands that reduced hours for off-licences is not a runner at this time for government. 

It’s believed that people wishing to buy alcohol would just shop earlier so the measure would have little effect. 

One measure that was included in legislation with the aim of reducing harmful drinking in Ireland is minimum pricing. In the last few weeks, lobbyists and a government back bencher have criticised the failure to implement it so far.

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. 

In May, then-Minister for Health Simon Harris expressed a preference for waiting on Northern Ireland to introduce the measure simultaneously but added that he wasn’t willing to “wait forever” to implement this “important public health measure”. 

Such reasoning is no longer valid, according to some. 

In the Dáil last week, Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív said: “There is a saying in the Irish language that when the drink is in, the sense is out. We know the truth of that statement. There can be no doubt that cheap alcohol is having a damaging effect in our country.

The excuse given for not acting on this was that people would travel across the Border for cheaper drink. This might happen but it would not undermine the general effectiveness of the law. When Covid-19 is added to the mix, it becomes even more important for people to keep their wits about them. It is time that we commence this section, which was passed by the House. We should not put it on the never-never, but take action.

The measure has already been brought in by Scotland, and Ó Cuív said that it too shares a land border – in this case with England – which has had little effect on the measure. 

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Writing in TheJournal.ie late last month, Eunan McKinney from Alcohol Action Ireland said that reducing the supply of cheap alcohol should be part of the government’s “Covid battle plan”.

He said: “Alcohol and social distancing remain poor bedfellows. And while there has been some concern about so-called ‘wet pubs’ as centres of transmission, drinking parties in houses, particularly when that alcohol has been bought for ‘pocket-money’ prices, should be a real concern too.”

In Northern Ireland, health minister Robin Swann recently promises a public consultation on the matter, an indication that it will be some time before the measure is introduced there. 

In response to Ó Cuív in the Dáil, junior health minister Frank Feighan said that the government made a commitment in 2013 for simultaneous introduction of minimum pricing with the North and this position was “reaffirmed in the programme for government”. 

Feighan said: “If we proceed with the policy unilaterally, we risk undermining its effectiveness by continuing to provide consumers with the option to avoid minimum unit pricing by crossing the Border to access cheaper alcohol… and I very much look forward to implementing the policy when the conditions are in place for it to be effective.”

In a statement, a Department of Health spokeswoman said that the introduction of minimum pricing in the context of travel restrictions would not be in compliance with the objective of the Government decision which approved the measure.

“The effects of the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol products in other jurisdictions are kept under consideration on an ongoing basis,” the spokeswoman added.

With reporting from Christina Finn

About the author:

Sean Murray

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