Legislation aimed at reducing Ireland’s significant problem with alcohol will be published before the Dáil summer recess and introduced in the Oireachtas in the autumn, the Minister for Health has confirmed.
Leo Varadkar said the Public Health Alcohol Bill would be the “most far-reaching proposed by any Irish government, with alcohol being addressed for the first time as a public health measure” in a country ranked fifth out of the 28 EU members for alcohol consumption, and second across Europe for binge drinking.
In a debate in the Seanad, Mr Varadkar said 75 per cent of all consumption of alcohol in Ireland is done during binge-drinking sessions. Alcohol was not abused by a small minority, and “the majority of people who drink do so in a harmful way”.
Alcohol consumption increased per capita from 10.6 litres in 2013 to 11 in 2014, and the Government aimed to cut that to 9.1 litres, the OECD average, by 2020.
Mr Varadkar reiterated the Government’s commitment that minimum unit pricing to eliminate very cheap alcohol from stores would be introduced, and said currently “a woman can reach her low-risk weekly drinking limit for just €6.30, while a man can reach this weekly limit for less than €10”.
The World Health Organisation said there was “indisputable evidence that the price of alcohol matters. If the price of alcohol goes up, alcohol-related harm goes down”.
Mr Varadkar said “ultimately, the price needs to be set at a level that will reduce the burden of harm from alcohol use or it will be ineffective - but not so high that it increases the cost of a pint in the pub or a glass of wine in a pizzeria”.
Minimum unit pricing is also being introduced in Northern Ireland, and the Minister is confident minimum unit pricing will be found compatible with EU treaties and rules.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout (Independent) expressed concern about Government departments dealing with drinks companies.
She said the HSE had recently announced it would have no truck with the alcohol industry. “Why isn’t the Department of Health, the Department of Education, equally coming out with similar statements?”
She had asked the Child and Family Agency, and they said “they’re thinking about it. They should have no truck with the drinks industry.”
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú (FF) said children were the main victims of the abuse of alcohol, whether in the home or elsewhere, and “that alone should make us more determined and courageous than we have ever been before on this issue”.
Senator Colm Burke (FG) said Canada introduced minimum unit pricing for alcohol.
In one province, he said, a 10 per cent increase in price resulted in an 8.4 per cent decrease in total alcohol consumption, while in British Columbia, the 10 per cent increase was linked to a 32 per cent fall in wholly alcohol-related deaths.