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Opinion: We cannot let concerns about cross-border shopping stop us controlling a minimum price of alcohol here

Eunan McKinney of Alcohol Action Ireland says public health demands the commencement of minimum unit pricing must proceed.

Eunan McKinney

CHEAP DRINK AND its contribution to alcohol abuse, has long been a huge problem in Ireland. It’s no secret that 2020 has been a difficult year, but despite the closure of pubs for most of it, Irish people have continued to consume and often abuse alcohol with abundant purchases at their local supermarket or convenience store. 

This week, Donegal has joined Dublin in Level 3 restrictions, which is a very difficult time for people in both counties. In the midst of the discussion around restrictions and the spread of the virus, we’ve heard much of house parties and gatherings in the home.

Reducing the supply of cheap alcohol, as other countries have done, should be part of the Government’s Covid battle plan; 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. 

It’s been more than 700 days since the public health alcohol policy, framed by the Public Health Alcohol Act, enacted minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol products as a proven measure to reduce alcohol use especially amongst the most hazardous of drinkers.

This establishes a floor price for all alcohol products beneath which they cannot legally be sold.

This would ensure that the cheapest, strongest alcohol, carefully selected by drinkers in search of the greatest high for the lowest price – that €11 bottle of Irish Whiskey, the €12 bottle of Gin or the 2-litre dynamite flagon of Irish cider, so evident throughout the retail landscape – would become a thing of the past.  

The Covid effect

Despite all the pubs being closed from the end of March through to early July because of Covid-19, and only half-opened since then, indications are that Ireland’s alcohol use has only declined by 4%.

During lockdown and since, however, trade data consistently shows that off-trade sales are booming, as more and more drinkers shift their alcohol use into their homes having unearthed the exceptional affordability of alcohol in the retail market. 

Price is central to demand and off-trade price surveys consistently show how affordable alcohol is, with men’s low-risk drinking weekly guideline of 17 standard drinks within reach for as little as €7.65. A woman’s weekly 11 standard drinks can be bought for less than a fiver at €4.95. 

The 2020 programme for government renewed a ‘longstanding’ commitment to implement MUP but ‘in consultation’ with the Northern Ireland Executive.

Back in 2015, the then Executive announced it would proceed with an alcohol minimum unit pricing policy having commissioned research that suggested that such a policy would lead to a reduction in alcohol use by 5.7% and could reduce alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland. 

The recent announcement by the Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health Robin Swann to consult on the possible introduction of such a measure, however, suggests further interminable delay.  

A cross-border issue

In the North, the rate per hundred thousand of alcohol-related deaths stands at 15.09 per 100,000 (NISRA 2018); Ireland’s rate currently stands at 21.2, according to the Health Research Board’s 2013 alcohol-related deaths.

In 2016, the Global Burden of Diseases estimate of attributable deaths suggested Ireland’s current rate could be as high as 56 per 100,000. 
In this context, the government can no longer ignore the objectives for the new public health measure, determined by Cabinet some seven years ago and democratically approved by the Oireachtas two years ago. 

While ideological objections and spurious considerations of cross border trade have stalled implementation, we cannot allow economic concerns to block and delay measures that can contribute to reducing alcohol harm and improving public health. 

Only one of the five alcohol products in Northern Ireland is lower than the floor price to be established by the proposed law in the Republic. There are many reasons why people choose to shop in Northern Ireland such as currency fluctuations and VAT.

These factors, added to consumer choices, ultimately determine the purchase point of alcohol for communities both sides of the Irish/UK border.  

Distance and proximity to the border are also important considerations. Over 60% of the estimated value (€458m; CSO:2018) of current Ireland to Northern Ireland cross-border shopping is done by those who live closest to the Border.

Booze is not the border draw

‘The AA’ (Automobile Association) seasonal consumer cross-border survey demonstrates that fashion items and cosmetics feature higher than any other products in motivating such cross-border shopping.

Around a third of those who shop cross border ‘intend on picking up alcohol’ where there is also a 13% difference between the VAT rate on alcohol products in the UK (20%) than in Ireland (23%).  

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Ensuring that cheap, strong alcohol cannot be sold in Ireland beneath a certain price is unlikely to contribute any further to cross-border shopping.

Since 2013, when the government agreed to introduce MUP, there have been 875 deaths from direct alcohol poisoning alone, likely induced by acute alcohol episodes. The Global Burden of Diseases would estimate that 19,530 deaths related to alcohol use have occurred in this period. 

In a judgement from the UK Supreme Court (2017) rejecting a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association et al to the proposed introduction of minimum pricing in Scotland, Lord Mance, delivering a unanimous decision, and reflecting on the incomparable values of health or economic impact on producers, stated ‘the courts should not second-guess the value which a domestic legislator puts on health’. 

Ireland can no longer wait. It must lead. Implementation must proceed and pandering to vested interests can no longer be a rational government position to delay the commencement of a democratically approved public health measure. 

Eunan McKinney is Head of Communications and Advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland.

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