In the car park of Seamus McNamee’s off-licence, First and Last, located just minutes north of the Border, are vehicles from all over the country.
The customers, some of whom have travelled from the likes of Carlow, Wexford and Roscommon specifically, reflect the surge in business the Jonesborough retailer has experienced from the South of Ireland, following the introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) in the Republic.
“Since the Irish Government introduced MUP, it’s just been gradually crazy with people from southern Ireland. Since March, and then the last bank holiday weekend, it’s just been crazy. We’re run off our feet,” Mr McNamee said.
“It’s hard to quantify the increase because of the pandemic, but I’d say it’s jumped up another 30 to 40 per cent.”
Slabs of beer are the most popular for those travelling cross-Border, Mr McNamee said, as they have been most affected by the new law.
“It used to take us maybe three or four weeks to sell a pallet. Now, since MUP, we would be doing three to four pallets of Coors or Bud per week.”
Consumers are buying in bulk, too, and buying for four or five members of the one family at a time.
“They’re coming with a list and getting their bits and pieces here. You can get a spend of between €200 to €400, up to maybe €2,000 or €3,000.”
On January 4th, the Government brought in MUP in the Republic, which enforces a minimum cost of at least 10c on every gram of alcohol.
The measure is one of a number under wider legislation called the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, which seeks to minimise alcohol-related harm in Irish society.
Before the commencement of MUP, a man could consume his weekly low-risk guideline limit of alcohol for €7.48, while a woman could consume hers for just €4.84, according to a 2021 report by the Health Research Board (HRB).
While many of the stakeholders were in favour of the measure in a bid to tackle alcohol misuse, one of the biggest bugbears was that it was not being enacted in both the North and South of Ireland at the same time.
Drinks Ireland, the industry body, said it “would also place large pressures on border businesses, and lead to an increase in illicit alcohol smuggling at the border, all at a vulnerable time for our economy”.
An Ibec economic report showed that a unilateral MUP move would increase the existing price differential on alcohol between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from 27 per cent to 38 per cent.
Furthermore, it estimated that it would result in a €94 million loss to the Irish Exchequer in increased sales across the Border.
For retailers south of the Border, many of them say their biggest fears around the legislation have come to fruition.
One supermarket owner in Donegal spoke of how his overall store sales have increased by 37 per cent following a significant expansion of the store, but alcohol is down 13 per cent.
“It’s been very badly hit. We know for a fact it’s transferred into the North. Our people tell us that they won’t buy the alcohol in our store any more, and they’re going over the Border instead,” he said.
Vincent Jennings, chief executive of the Irish Convenience Store and Newsagents Association (CSNA), said the sale of alcohol has definitely reduced in member stores, but that this has “not necessarily in terms of reduced harmful consumption”.
“From about 40km of the Border, there are very significant variations and then it goes out on a ripple effect from that,” he added.
Further south, the views on the legislation are more mixed, depending on the impact the measure is perceived to have had on those voicing their opinions.
Off-licences, for example, campaigned in favour of the legislation, largely due to the fact that a vast majority of take-home alcohol sales in Ireland are purchased through supermarkets and discount stores.
These establishments were able to sell alcohol products at a loss, due to the vast offering in stores, a situation which was not possible for premises whose sole purpose was the sale of alcohol.
Evelyn Jones, Government affairs director of the National Off-Licence Association (Noffla), said its members “so far have generally seen little change in spending habits” as a result of the pricing change.
Some convenience stores are reporting a similar situation, with Peter McGinnity of Next Door Off-licence McGinnity in Co Cavan, stating there has been “no change” week to week, although he has found bank holiday sales have “stabilised” as supermarkets can no longer run large discounts.
Workers from several supermarkets across Dublin said there has been no noticeable change in consumer behaviour, and people are merely just willing to spend more for the same product.
While it was viewed by many in the off-licence sector as creating a more even playing field, craft producers feel similarly.
Peter Mulryan, chief executive of Blackwater Distillery in Co Waterford, which is renowned for its gin, said the commencement of the legislation has had a “minimal effect on our sales”.
“I think it’s had a positive effect on craft producers because we don’t have the economy of scale that multinationals would have,” he said.
“It has levelled the pitch up a little bit for us. I think what it’s done is encouraged people to drink better. The cheap stuff isn’t really worthwhile, so they tend to move slightly upmarket which tends to play into the hand, a little bit, of craft producers.”
However, one of the biggest changes, according to Damian O’Reilly, senior lecturer of retail management in TU Dublin, is the way in which alcohol is now being sold.
“Channels have changed because prices have levelled out a little bit. It’s good for the convenience sector, because stores are able to make money now; they were losing money on alcohol beforehand. It’s giving them a margin shift,” he said.
“There’s been a change in pack sizes. Slabs of beer are basically gone because nobody is going to spend on a slab of beer, so the suppliers are starting to put the product in smaller packs. Instead of buying one, you might buy four packs or eight packs. They’ve also decreased the size of some cans as well, from 500ml to 440ml.”
And while there may have been changes to purchasing patterns, the real question is whether it has beneficial to the Irish people’s health and wellbeing.
The country has long since had a problematic relationship with the substance, which can particularly be seen when looking at the impact alcohol has on the State’s health system.
Between 2012 and 2017, there were 121,919 hospital discharges with a partially alcohol-attributable condition, the Health Research Board said.
Figures from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland showed a 300 per cent increase in liver cancer diagnoses in Ireland from the mid-1990s to 2014, a rise that has been attributed to alcohol consumption.
Furthermore, 1,094 alcohol-related deaths were recorded in 2017 — an average of three deaths per day. Of those, more than 70 per cent were under 65 years old, highlighting the high levels of premature mortality associated with the substance.
Given MUP has only been in place for less than six months, those involved in public health said it is far too soon to determine whether it is having a positive effect on consumer behaviour and health.
However, in Scotland, which introduced MUP in May 2018 at a fixed rate of 50p per unit, answers on the effectiveness are beginning to emerge, though the conclusions vary from study to study.
Research from Newcastle University, and published in the Lancet, found alcohol sales fell by almost 8 per cent after the policy was introduced in Scotland.
The study said reductions in overall purchases were largely restricted to households that bought the most alcohol, with the exception being high-purchasing, low-income homes, “who did not seem to change their habits”.
A second study by Public Health Scotland, published in June 2022, found that drinkers who suffered the worst effects of alcoholism did not change their habits when the law was introduced. According to the research, MUP resulted in some people instead cutting back on food and energy.
Sheila Gilheany, chief executive officer of Alcohol Action Ireland, said the charity welcomed the introduction of MUP, and that it is “not designed to resolve the complex issue of alcohol dependency”.
“MUP is designed to help reduce sales and use across the whole of the drinking population particularly those who have a pattern of drinking use consistent with hazardous and harmful use,” she said.
Dr Jo-Hanna Ivers, assistant professor in addiction at Trinity College Dublin, said while she is in favour of the measure on a population level, those with alcohol addiction and dependency can sometimes be a “casualty” in these situations.
“From an addiction perspective, it probably wasn’t really going to change that end of things. When you’re talking about dependence and addiction, it’s incredibly complex,” she said.
“In fact, they can become a bit of a casualty because when someone is dependent or addicted and prices go up, you have to wonder then for that group, what other things will suffer. Food poverty will become an issue for that group.”
Dr Ivers said it would be important to “plug those gaps” in electricity and food for those with alcohol addiction to ensure they aren’t left behind.
Despite this drawback, Dr Ivers said there is still big promise that MUP can be an effective tool in tackling alcohol misuse.
“If you look at the risky drinkers and people drinking in a harmful way, you can’t dissociate that from the availability of something and that’s where the big promise is,” she said.
“People were drinking more because it was cheaper and more available to them. If we kind of tinker with that, and taper the consumption of drink, that’s where the benefits come from.”