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Ministers to put 'pressure' on NI Executive to follow suit with minimum unit pricing for alcohol

The measures will take effect in the Republic at the start of 2022, but it will be at least 2023 in the North.

Image: Shutterstock/www.hollandfoto.net

THE HEALTH MINISTER said he “would like to see an all-island approach” to minimum unit pricing, but doesn’t foresee a big problem of people travelling to Northern Ireland to buy the types of alcohol impacted by the measures.

The Cabinet agreed yesterday to introduce minimum unit pricing on alcohol from 1 January 2022. It will put the price of alcohol at a minimum of 10c per gram. 

This means a 70cl bottle of whiskey or gin can’t be sold for less than €22.09, a 70cl bottle of vodka for €20.71, a 750ml bottle of wine for €7.40 and a pint of lager for €1.93. 

The same measure will not take effect in Northern Ireland until at least 2023, NI Health Minister Robin Swann has said. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who has previously only wanted the country to move ahead with minimum pricing in tandem with the North, said Swann’s recent announcement means “we have to proceed now”.

“What we will be doing is putting pressure on the Northern Ireland Executive and on the parties in Northern Ireland to follow suit,” he said at a press briefing today. 

He added that the delay until 2022 gives the government time for retailers to prepare and avoid “any issues around a cross border Christmas shopping rush”.

The Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said: “Right now, some supermarkets are selling alcohol cheaper than they’re selling water – that’s not okay.

“We would like to see an all-island approach obviously. It would take care of some of the concerns people have about distortive impacts of price arbitrage. I’ll be surprised if they are big in the end to be honest but let’s wait and see.”

The ministers said that “first and foremost” this is a public health measure to target harmful drinking and reduce alcohol-related hospitalisations and deaths. 

Varadkar said the consequences of this measure “should result in around 200 fewer alcohol-related deaths, and 6,000 fewer hospital admissions per year”. 

He added that it will relieve pressure on the health service and help to reduce excessive drinking at home. 

In 2018, Scotland became the first country in the EU to bring in minimum unit pricing – a model which Ireland is following.

Data reported in June showed that alcohol sales had dropped in Scotland to the lowest level since records began in the early 1990s. Alcohol consumption levels were also at the lowest levels since 1994. 

Varadkar said there is an “undeniable risk” that having higher alcohol prices on cheap drinks could encourage people to travel to the North. 

“It’s the reason why we’ve put this off for so long, it’s the reason why we waited and hoped to agree a date with Northern Ireland, but you can’t put off doing the right thing forever, and this is the right thing,” he said. 

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Donnelly said that the type of alcohol being targeted with this measure is cheap and strong alcohol, like own-brand spirits from large retailers. 

He gave the example that a bottle of vodka costing €12.99 (often sold in places like Lidl and Aldi) will increase to more than €20 under minimum unit pricing. 

“What we’d have to see for a major distortion is people willing to travel, potentially quite a long way and spending a lot more on petrol than they’ll save in the €7 on the bottle of vodka, to go North to get that,” Donnelly said. 

The Minister of State for Public Health Frank Feighan said he didn’t accept that differences in pricing across the border will impact trade.

“You’ve always had currency fluctuations, you’ve always had pricing fluctuations, and this is only targeting, as the Minister said, just a certain amount of high quantity alcohol at cheap prices,” Feighan said. 

“And also, the data is there, that of the amount of people who go across the border, only 16% of people buy alcohol. The vast amount of people it’s cosmetics and fashion.”

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