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Explainer: Minimum unit pricing for alcohol is on the way, but how exactly does it work?

Cheaper drinks with a high alcohol content will see the biggest price change.

Minimum unit pricing may be commenced as soon as possible in Ireland.
Minimum unit pricing may be commenced as soon as possible in Ireland.
Image: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

A SET PRICE for alcohol is being pushed forward by Minister for Health Simon Harris “as soon as possible” after data was released last month about minimum unit pricing in Scotland. 

Results showed that alcohol consumption in Scotland has dropped to its lowest levels since the 1990s when records began after minimum unit pricing was brought in last year. 

But what exactly is minimum unit pricing and what will it mean for Irish alcohol prices if commenced?

What is minimum unit 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. 

Why is it being discussed now?

The Public Health (Alcohol) Act was brought in last October with a timeline set out for when different sections would commence over the next few years. 

The Act was supported by most parties and was pushed forward through the Dáil and Seanad. However, aspects of it were opposed by the Independent Alliance and some lobbyists since 2015 when the Bill was first brought forward before becoming an Act in 2018. 

The minimum unit pricing section of the Act is being discussed now after data was published in June about minimum unit pricing in Scotland.

Data showed that alcohol consumption had dropped to the lowest level since records began in the 1990s after minimum pricing was brought in last year. 

In Ireland, minimum unit pricing and other sections of the 2018 Act need a separate government decision to commence, which is why it hasn’t started yet despite being signed into law.  

The Minister for Health Simon Harris is intending to seek a revised government decision to allow minimum pricing to commence here as soon as possible, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Health. 

Harris told TheJournal.ie in 2017: “In terms of when it will commence? I will consider it then, we will have to see what the situation is like in the North but we won’t be holding off on this forever either.”

Won’t people just travel to Northern Ireland to get cheaper alcohol then?

They could, which is why the original government decision in 2013 approving the drafting of a Bill specified that the Minister for Health in the Republic and the North were in agreement to act simultaneously on minimum unit pricing to avoid negative impacts on trade across the border.

However, Minister Harris is trying to amend this agreement to push forward minimum unit pricing just in the Republic. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told TheJournal.ie on 5 July: “The Minister for Health wishes to implement the minimum unit pricing of alcohol products in order to reduce as soon as possible the significant health harms and financial costs of the way alcohol is consumed in Ireland.”

These harms and costs include cases of alcohol-attributed deaths, liver disease, breast cancer and other issues, according to the spokesperson.  

What’s happening in Scotland?

In 2018, Scotland became the first country in the EU to bring in minimum unit pricing. Data reported in June showed that consumption levels of alcohol had dropped to the lowest level since records began in the early 1990s. 

However, alcohol prices are cheaper in Scotland than in Ireland, even at the minimum unit price. The minimum price at the moment in Scotland for a 700ml bottle of whiskey is £14 (€15.60). 

A 700ml bottle of vodka can’t be cheaper than £13.13 (€14.63). 

Will this affect someone who only drinks every now and then?

Minister Finian McGrath, stepping in for Simon Harris, said in the Dáil that “the minimum price will make little difference to those who only drink low or moderate volumes of alcohol”.

Alcoholic drink prices in pubs, clubs and restaurants won’t be affected by minimum pricing, according to the Department of Health. Pints and pub measures of spirits will all remain at the same price. 

The HSE low-risk guidelines from askaboutalcohol.ie for women are 11 standard drinks over the course of a week, with at least two alcohol-free days.

For men, it is 17 standard drinks spread over the week with at least two alcohol-free days.

The evidence base for introducing minimum unit pricing in Ireland is analysis carried out by the University of Sheffield in England, which has the same low-risk drinking levels.  

Currently, a woman can reach her low-risk weekly drinking limit for €5.49, while a man can reach his for less than €9, according to Alcohol Action Ireland. 

Which drinks will cost more when it’s brought in? 

The main drinks that will increase in price are cheap drinks with a high alcohol content such as supermarket own-brands of vodka and gin. 

Tesco’s Nikita Imperial Vodka 700ml will increase from €12.99 to €20.71, a rise of €7.72 This will make it the same price as the retail cost of Smirnoff Vodka. 

Tesco’s Windsor Castle London Dry Gin 700ml will rise by €4.72. Linden Village Cider will also see an increase of €2.89, rising from €5 to €7.89. 

An average bottle of wine can no longer be sold for less than €7.50. 

Cheaper beers such as Dutch Gold will increase by 45c per can in an 8 pack. Tesco lager will see an increase of 6c per can. More known brands like Guinness, Heineken and Bulmers will see no price change.

What else is in the Act?

The Act also includes new restrictions on advertising and selling alcohol products. 23 sections of the Act were signed into law in November 2018 by Simon Harris to take effect over three years.

Provisions on including health warnings, alcohol contents and energy contents of alcohol products on their containers. Restrictions will be brought in about advertising and sponsorship of alcohol products. 

Alcohol advertising on vehicles or transport stations and within 200m of a school, creche or local authority playground will not be allowed. 

Cinema advertising will be prohibited except in films with an 18 cert or in a licensed premises in a cinema. Kid’s clothes that promote alcohol will be banned.

Any person who sells or advertises alcohol products at a price lower than the minimum cost could be found guilty of an offence.

Will this reduce alcohol consumption rates in Ireland?

That is the hope anyways based on global evidence. However, it is only one section of a whole Act of other initiatives. 

The objective of the entire Act is to reduce alcohol consumption to the OECD average of 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per person per year by 2020, reduce harm, delay young people drinking alcohol too early and minimise alcohol-related harm by regulating the supply and price of alcohol. 

This consumption target is above the global average of 6.2 litres per year. 

Eunan McKinney from Alcohol Action Ireland said that minimum unit pricing on its own would have a limited impact on consumption levels.

“The Bill and the Act is a very progressive piece of legislation, but it’s only progressive if it’s implemented and at the moment we only have sight of four or five minor aspects of the Act that are going to be implemented,” said McKinney. 

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