New minimum price order may not come into effect for a year
Government launches substance misuse strategy which also introduces new restrictions on advertising but does not ban sports sponsorship
Alex White, Minister of State for Primary Care, James Reilly, Minister for Health, and Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, announcing the Government packege of measures to deal with alcohol misuse. Photograph: Alan Betson
The introduction of a minimum price for alcohol in Ireland is unlikely to occur for up to another 12 months, the relevant Government Ministers have accepted.
The Government’s national substance misuse strategy was launched yesterday by Minister for Health James Reilly, Minister of State for Health Alex White and the Minster for Children Frances Fitzgerald at a press conference in Government Buildings.
The central measure of the new strategy is a new minimum unit pricing for alcohol products, which will specifically target low-cost products in off-licences and supermarkets.
Mr White, who has taken charge of the strategy, said he hoped that by the middle of 2014 the required legislation would be “under way”.
That suggested the new laws to introduce minimum pricing and the other measures in the strategy might not become operational until the autumn of next year.
One of two reasons underlying the delay is a challenge to Scottish laws that introduced a similar minimum price. The European Commission, in a preliminary opinion, concluded that it acted as a trade barrier. A full commission ruling is expected, and if it rules against minimum pricing in Scotland, the same will apply in Ireland.
Mr White said it involved an interest area of EU law, striking the balance between competition rules and the public health imperative. “The same issues [under EU competition laws] apply here as apply there,” said Mr White.
The second reason for the delay is the need to consult authorities in the North to minimise the price difference between alcohol in both jurisdictions. This will be designed to prevent a huge rise in cross-Border shopping for alcohol that last happened in 2009 when there was a big price difference.
The strategy is based on a steering group report from February 2012 and has adopted almost all recommendations.
The one notable exception is the decision not to go ahead with a phasing out of drinks companies sponsoring sports events after resistance from some Fine Gael Ministers.
Instead, a Government working group will examine the issue from a public health perspective, and also look into the financial implications for sports organisations of a ban.
Ms Fitzgerald said yesterday a definite decision would be made on this within 12 months.
Mr White denied it was a fudge, but agreed that those who, like him, favoured an end to sponsorship “had more persuading to do”.
The other major measures are new restrictions on advertising that might be directed at younger people.
Mr Reilly cited a colleague whose children could name five alcohol brands but no tobacco brands.
Ms Fitzgerald said that increased awareness among young people led to higher consumption levels. However, the new measures did not specify the 9pm watershed recommended by the report, rather a reference to “evening hours”.
Health warnings will be put on labels of all alcoholic drink with clear marking as to the amount of pure alcohol (measured in grams).
New restrictions on selling designed among other things to discourage younger people from binge drinking are also being introduced.
The chair of the steering group, Dr Tony Holohan, said he was delighted with the strategy which had implementable and workable solutions dealing with pricing, access, advertising, marketing, sponsorship and labelling.
Mr White and Dr Reilly cited evidence that 1.5 million Irish drinkers drink in a harmful pattern, and that 2,000 of the 11,000 beds in Irish acute hospitals are occupied by patients with alcohol-related symptom.
The Alcohol Federation of Ireland called on the Government to engage with the drinks industry on the strategy.
Its director, Kathryn D’Arcy, welcomed some measures and the decision to put the sports sponsorship issue to review.
She raised concerns that education had not been prioritised.
“Evidence shows that the principal influencers on youth drinking are parents and peers. The absence of education measures…is a glaring omission.”