The Government intends to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol by Christmas, Minister of State at the Department of Health Frank Feighan has said.
A law that would impose a basement price on alcohol – with the aim of discouraging excess drinking – was approved in 2018 but has not yet been commenced.
The Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 states that the lowest price that can be charged for a gram of alcohol is 10 cent. With a standard drink having 10g of alcohol in it, the lowest price that could be charged for it once the law is in operation would be €1.
Prior to the measure being drawn up, the selling of cheap alcohol in supermarkets and off-licences had been blamed for an increase in alcohol-related deaths.
Successive governments have said the delay in commencing this part of the Act is down to a desire to have similar legislation in place in Northern Ireland in order to deter cross-Border excursions to buy cheap alcohol in bulk.
However, Mr Feighan, who has responsibility for alcohol policy, said the coronavirus pandemic had delayed action on the issue and, in recent weeks, he had learned the Northern Executive would not be acting on the matter in the near future.
He said he is determined to introduce minimum unit pricing and hopes it will be in place by the end of the year.
North and South
“The idea was it would happen simultaneously in both jurisdictions. We were waiting for the North and then Covid-19 came in,” Mr Feighan said.
“I had a meeting with the North’s Minister for Health Robert Swann three weeks ago. He told me Northern Ireland would not be bringing it in before the northern elections in May 2022. You could be talking about the end of 2022 before they introduce it.
“Essentially my advice from officials and my own view is that we have no choice but try to introduce it here.”
Mr Feighan said the fact that alcohol would be cheaper in the North and people might travel there to bulk buy could dilute the efficacy of the measure but it was his view that the positives of acting now “far outweigh the negatives”.
He instanced the case of Scotland, which has had minimum unite pricing since May 2018, and said “the results have been very encouraging”.
“In September 2019, it was estimated the deaths caused directly by alcohol dropped by 21.5 per cent in Scotland,” he said.
“If you are looking at misuse of alcohol you are talking about 2,700 deaths here in Ireland each year. Take away 20 per cent and you save 500 to 600 preventable deaths.”
He said the matter would have to go to Cabinet for final approval.
There has been internal Government criticism in recent week over the delay in commencing the law. The issue was raised at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary meeting by Éamon Ó Cuív, who said minimum pricing had been a success in Scotland despite it having a border with England where similar rules were not in place.
Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan on Tuesday linked the sale of cheap alcohol with Covid-19 transmission. He called for curbs on the sale of alcohol ahead of St Patrick’s Day to avoid a repeat of the Government’s “massive failure” to deal with sales in off-licences before Christmas.
“We didn’t deal with the sale of alcohol before Christmas. We paid a very dear price for it,” he said.
“Well before Christmas I suggested that we needed to address the volume and amount of alcohol that was on sale and the time frame by which off licences were allowed to sell alcohol. It was something that [the National Public Health Emergency Team] discussed, but it was something that was thrown out the window.”