Q&A: What’s the story with plans for minimum pricing for alcohol?

Minister for Health brings memo to Cabinet detailing proposals

Don’t tell me the price of the pint is rising?

Well, yes and no – mainly no, though. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly brought a memo to Cabinet on Tuesday covering the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

What is that again?

In very simple terms minimum unit pricing sees the State set the lowest price at which alcohol can be sold. It is based on how much alcohol a product contains, so the more units in a bottle, the higher the price.

Why would they do that?

Cheap alcohol in supermarkets and off-licences has long been blamed for an increase in alcohol-related deaths in Ireland, and international evidence suggests that price changes can have a big impact on how much people drink.

But what is the problem with cheap alcohol?

According to alcohol harm advocacy group Alcohol Action Ireland, a man can drink the weekly low-risk limit of 17 standard drinks for as little as €7.65, while a woman consuming alcohol within the same guidelines can reach the weekly low-risk limit of 11 standard drinks for just €4.95.

Who will be impacted?

Minimum pricing primarily hits heavy drinkers and young people who are more likely to seek out cheap drink.

That all seems very sensible, what are the details?

The plan is to introduce a minimum price of 10 cent per gram.

Per gram? That means nothing to me.

It means nothing to almost everybody. To put it in terms that more people will understand, once the law is introduced the cheapest bottle of wine will cost €7.75, compared to €3.99 today. A 700ml bottle of supermarket gin or vodka – which can currently be bought for about €13 – will cost at least €20.71. The cheapest 440ml can of lager will be €1.32.

And when will all this happen?

The Government has promised to have the new pricing model in place by Christmas, although it is likely to be in force by September.

Have the powers that be been planning this for a long time?

Indeed they have. Proposals for a minimum price for alcohol have been talked about for almost a decade, and the current legislation was approved in 2018. It was not rolled out at the time because it was figured it would be a good idea to introduce it in tandem with Northern Ireland. That plan was derailed when the administration in Stormont said it would not be introducing its own minimum pricing system for at least two years.

Why does it matter what Northern Ireland does?

Alcohol already costs less up North, and it is going to cost even less again once the new rules are in.

What is the industry saying?

The drinks industry has been lobbying hard against the move. In recent days Drinks Industry Ireland has warned that prices in the State could be twice those in the North.

Has minimum pricing been done anywhere else, and what impact has it had?

It has. It had a big impact when it was introduced in Canada more than a decade ago. Closer to home, Scotland has had minimum unit pricing since May 2018, and just over a year after its introduction it was estimated that deaths caused directly by alcohol have fallen by 21.5 per cent.

That is a lot. Are there many alcohol-related deaths in Ireland?

Yes. According to official estimates the misuse of alcohol is responsible for about 2,700 deaths here each year. If the Scottish experience is mirrored here, that number could fall by over 500 every year.

What impact will it have on the price of a pint in a pub?

A pub? What is a pub? Ah no, we remember pubs. The good news is that this will have no impact on prices in pubs or restaurants. Almost all drinks bought in such places are already sold well above any likely minimum price so they will not be affected. Cheap ciders, lagers, spirits and wines will be hit hard.

But won’t the price of all alcohol products simply climb if the cheapest ones do?

No. If a bottle of wine that currently costs €4 climbs to €8, that does not mean the bottle that costs €8 will climb to €12. Apart from anything else consumers would not tolerate that. What is more like to happen is that the €4 bottle will simply disappear.

Anything else happening on the alcohol front?

Yes. Since the start of this year under the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, alcohol sales have no longer been included in supermarket voucher schemes, while popular multibuy deals have also been shelved. Physical barriers have been installed to keep alcohol away from general grocery areas, and offering alcohol as part of meal deals has been outlawed.

Other changes have seen alcohol advertising banned at bus stops, within 200m of all schools and during certain films at cinemas. There is also a ban on alcohol advertising at sporting events or events aimed at children, and a ban on ads at events involving driving or racing motor vehicles is also coming into force.