Alcohol legislation follows behind curve of public opinion rather than leading it
Public tolerance of the many negatives of alcohol has long since evaporated
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar is right to say that “we have been talking about this for too long”, even if this neglects his own part in this delay. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov
Like free education or the smoking ban, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill marks a paradigm shift in a key area of public policy.
Unlike the other two measures, though, this legislation follows behind the curve of public opinion, rather than leading it. Ireland’s relationship with drink and drinking has already changed, and this is the Government’s belated attempt at recognising this fact.
We are still a nation of drinkers, of course, which is why the Bill is necessary, but public tolerance of the many negatives associated with alcohol has long since evaporated. People are tired of the binge drinking, the street rowdiness, the emergency departments stuffed with sleeping drunks and the alcohol-fuelled acts of violence, from one-punch killings to domestic violence.
On a lower key, they worry more than ever about the effects of alcohol on their physical and mental health, and their weight. They fret about their children’s propensity to drink earlier, more heavily and faster than previous generations.
The Bill is a long time coming and follows a six-year delay that must have suited the vested interests in the drinks industry just fine. So Minister for Health Leo Varadkar is right to say “we have been talking about this for too long”, even if the call to action neglects his own part in this delay as a member of Cabinet since 2011.
Changing drinking patterns
Tackling alcohol abuse isn’t just about whether we drink; it’s also about how we drink, and even where we drink. That’s why the single most important measure in the legislation is the proposal for minimum unit pricing for alcohol products. Setting a floor on the price of alcohol will change drinking patterns by making it less attractive to consume large amounts of cheap product, as problem drinkers tend to do.
It will also shift the balance within the sector away from the off-trade and toward the on-trade, ie from the unsupervised consumption of alcohol purchased in off-licences to its consumption in licensed – and, hopefully, properly supervised – premises open for defined hours. Within the off-licence, it will shift the balance away from the multiples who control 70 per cent of the business and towards smaller operators.
For some, this will smack of the nanny State. This view, however, fails to recognise that alcohol is a drug, and like other drugs, it needs to be regulated.
Unit pricing has been tried in Canada and five other countries, none of them in the EU. The Irish proposal is likely to be challenged in the courts. A similar plan in Scotland has been appealed to the European Court of Justice, where the European Commission and nine EU states have voiced their opposition. It all sounds a bit like the opposition from the tobacco lobby to the proposal for plain packaging of cigarettes.
Another battleground will be the actual minimum level set for unit pricing, which is to be set through secondary legislation. Set too low and it will be meaningless. Doubtless, too, some left-wing TDs will oppose the measure because it affects the poor most, as though the right to drink yourself silly is a right that trumps all others.
The Cabinet has also approved the structural separation of alcohol from other products, something that should have been introduced in 2008.
Back then, minister for justice Dermot Ahern deferred commencing this provision to allow the drinks industry implement its own voluntary code. But as in the area of cut-price drinks promotions, voluntary codes haven’t worked, certainly not across the board.
The Bill will require price labels to carry health warnings, calorie counts and information about the alcohol content. All very laudable, but you only have to look at the food sector to see how some manufacturers and retailers have ducked and dived on their responsibilities in this area.
The measures for regulating the advertising and marketing of alcohol are vague, as befits the fudge they represent. The Bill will make it illegal to market alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. It seems incredible that this isn’t the case already.
Mr Varadkar is promising “legal regulation” of sports sponsorship for the first time but – not surprisingly given the disagreements on this at Cabinet – no details are provided for now.
Ultimately, the devil will be in the detail, assuming the Government has enough time to see the legislation passed.