Cabinet to discuss alcohol plans


Fine Gael and Labour Ministers are at odds over proposals to counter alcohol abuse which are due to come before Cabinet tomorrow.

A number of Fine Gael Ministers, including Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, have expressed reservations about aspects of a plan on alcohol drawn up by Labour Minister of State at the Department of Health Róisín Shortall.

Consequently, Labour sources fear the proposals in Ms Shortall's memorandum to Government may be put on the back-burner by Cabinet and deferred until autumn for consideration.

"There’s a lot of push back on this. We're afraid they may kick to touch, just when leadership is needed on alcohol misuse," said a Labour source last night.

Some Fine Gael Ministers, including Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, are supportive of the proposals, as are Labour Ministers. However, some Fine Gael Ministers have argued that measures should be targeted at those who abuse alcohol rather than applying across the population. The document argues that people’s level of alcohol consumption generally is unhealthy.

They also have continuing reservations about plans to restrict drinks advertising and to curb, and eventually phase out, sponsorship by alcohol companies.

Speaking on RTÉ radio this morning, Simon Coveney confirmed he had some concerns 'particularly around sponsorship and advertising' but said he was 'strongly supportive' on the whole of Ms Shortall's recommendations.

"I have some concerns and I'm going to discuss them around the cabinet table. An awful lot of what she's promising is spot on - minimum pricing on alcohol, restricting alcohol sales, targeting alcopops and increasing education for young people around alcohol and its abuse. It is very progressive," he said.

"With any big broad policy initiative, discussion and debate needs to take place at Cabinet."

Earlier proposals to restrict arts and sports sponsorships by the drinks industry met with opposition from six Ministers but these have been since been watered down. Sponsorship was supposed to end in 2016 but Ms Shortall has agreed to extend the deadline by a number of years.

Her memorandum also seeks approval in principle for a minimum unit price on alcohol and a "responsibility levy" on drinks firms which would be used to fund campaigns highlighting the dangers of alcohol. The actual minimum price is not specified but would be set following further studies and consultation with the authorities in Northern Ireland and Britain, where similar measures are contemplated.

The levy, also to be determined, would be based on a percentage of the amount spent by drinks companies on advertising and marketing.

Other elements include an expansion of treatment facilities for alcoholics and stricter rules on labelling, to cover the level of alcohol in a product, calorie content and provision of "danger messages".

The proposals provide for regular monitoring of the Coalition's performance in reducing consumption and hitting targets.

An inspector would be appointed to publish annual reports.

The aim is to reduce consumption in Ireland from the current level of 12 litres per person a year – the equivalent of a bottle of spirits a week – to the OECD average of 9.3 litres; and to engineer changes in the way people drink.

The drinks industry has lobbied vigorously against any major tightening of rules relating to the sale and marketing of alcohol, arguing that it could cost jobs. However, the document going to Cabinet states that supermarkets – which account for 95 per cent of the off-licence trade – would bear the brunt of the proposed changes and they employ relatively few people in the sale of alcohol.

Studies have shown that alcohol costs the economy €3.7 billion a year in health costs, increased crime and lost productivity. On a given day, 2,000 hospital beds are occupied by people with alcohol-related conditions and alcohol is a factor in about half of all suicides.

Last week, a survey found that a majority supported the introduction of minimum pricing though most people opposed banning drinks company sponsorship of sporting events.

The debate over Ireland's relationship with alcohol is reignited periodically by particular events at which it is abused, most recently the Swedish House Mafia concert in Dublin’s Phoenix Park at which a number of fans were stabbed.

Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin yesterday joined in criticism of the drink culture. He told worshippers in the Pro-Cathedral: "The peaceful yet purposeful journey of the apostles contrasts with any culture of violence and of the emptiness of a culture of drink which has left its mark on society in Dublin in these days, hurting the weak and the vulnerable."