Bill to curb alcohol abuse deferred until after Christmas

Store owners would be required to segregate alcohol and non-alcohol products

The Government has deferred a Bill to curb alcohol abuse until after Christmas in an effort to overcome internal divisions within Fine Gael over a provision to reduce the visibility of drinks in grocery stores.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill would require store owners to segregate alcohol and non-alcohol products. The change is intended to ensure alcohol is not regarded by customers, especially children, as similar to other commodities.

The Bill has been subject to an extraordinary lobbying campaign on both sides of the debate, and has led to contentious debates in the Seanad, where it was introduced, and at meetings of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

The legislation was scheduled for further debate in the Seanad next week but this has been deferred until after Christmas.

According to sources in Fine Gael, the delay will allow time for the party to find a resolution to the impasse between the Minister of State for Health Promotion, Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, and her party colleagues who think some provisions are too restrictive.

Physical separation

These TDs are particularly exercised by section 20 of the Bill which requires owners to erect a physical separation between the alcohol section and all other sections. Senators and TDs from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been heavily lobbied by the grocery trade. A number of Senators and TDs have indicated they will not support the section, arguing the costs for small grocers will be prohibitive.

Ms Corcoran-Kennedy has disputed this assertion. The health promotion unit of her department has produced an information sheet showing the requirement can be met by relatively inexpensive means, including the erection of screens and perspex.

She has stood four-square behind the legislation. “I do not want children to be exposed to alcohol as an ordinary commodity beside butter and cheese,” she said.

“Today’s teenagers are the first generation of children who have grown up seeing it as an ordinary commodity, when it is a psycho-active drug which can change behaviour.”

Supporters of the Bill, including Independent Senator Frances Black, are concerned the lobbying in relation to this section is merely the forerunner for further attacks on the legislation from vintners and the drinks industry. These groups have already been heavily involved in lobbying, as have alcohol awareness groups on the other side.

“I have never experienced lobbying of this intensity during my time in the House,” said one Fine Gael TD who was elected for the first time in 2011.

Impact of alcohol

A delegation from the Royal College of Physicians led by Prof Frank Murray made a presentation to more than 30 Fine Gael TDs and Senators on Wednesday about the impact alcohol abuse has had on the health services.

Among the speakers were Dr Maeve Skelly, a gastroenterologist from University Hospital Limerick; Prof Aidan McCormack, a herpetologist from St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin; and Prof John Hillary, incoming president of the College of Psychiatrists.

The speakers outlined how 1,500 hospital bed nights every night were alcohol-related, a situation that has contributed heavily to the trolley crisis. They also outlined the details of cases where young patients, including women, were presenting with serious liver problems, once a problem associated only with older males.

Dr Skelly said: “In University Hospital Limerick, we regularly have the highest trolley numbers in the country. Our access to hospital beds in the midwest is directly related to the number of patients who are under our care with alcohol related disease and in turn how the widespread sale of alcohol is associated with my patients’ problems and hospital admissions. ”

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times