Minimum pricing among new alcohol laws facing wine lovers

New legislation will hit small wine importers and specialist shops

Under the legislation, retailers will be required to separate alcohol from all other products.

Under the legislation, retailers will be required to separate alcohol from all other products.

 

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill currently working its way through the Oireachtas could have profound effects on the way we drink. Minimum pricing makes some sense to me, although a ban on below-cost selling might be more effective. However, we already have some of the most expensive alcohol in Europe, so obviously price alone will not curb excessive drinking. Many of those creating mayhem in our urban centres every weekend will have paid very high prices for their late-night drinks and it certainly hasn’t prevented them bingeing.

The Bill does not propose to limit the number of outlets that can sell alcohol. I am uneasy that my local garage sells a range of wine, beer and spirits alongside petrol. If alcohol is so dangerous, surely its sale should be limited, or confined to specialists? If it works, I would certainly welcome the proposed restrictions on the constant barrage of dubious special offers on alcohol in our supermarkets.

The proposal to have a label on the back listing the alcoholic strength in grams as well as the calorie content, alongside other health warnings may sound good but actually could severely restrict the import of quality wine while leaving the cheaper stuff untouched.

Big producers typically ship a large consignment of a single wine so it should be relatively easy for them to affix a unique back label for the Irish market. For small artisan producers who make tiny quantities of multiple wines, and small quality importers who import these wines, it would be a nightmare. For instance, medium-sized importer Tindal & Co import 1,070 different wines from 125 producers. Imagine trying to deal with a small 100 case delivery of 10 different wines, opening each case, removing every bottle to attach a unique back label depending on the alcoholic strength and calories of the wine. Multiply this by a hundred and it simply isn’t possible. This could mean the disappearance of the most interesting wines from this country, and possibly a few importers too.

Under the legislation, retailers will be required to separate alcohol from all other products. Again, this seems a sensible idea, and should be relatively easy for large supermarkets with plenty of space. But many of the small specialist off-licences and wine shops also offer cheeses, charcuterie, and other foods alongside their wines. As things stand, they will have to cordon their wine off so that it cannot be seen from the food section. Our specialist retailers, already under severe pressure from the multiples, and hardly the cause of our alcohol problems, will be put under huge additional pressure.

I continue to believe that most of us consume alcohol in a way that does not seriously damage our health. I am in favour of anything that encourages us to drink sensibly, and to think differently about alcohol.  It remains to be seen whether this bill will do that, or simply demonise the intelligent drinker. jwilson@irishtimes.com

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