Minister for Health Simon Harris will meet shopkeepers to discuss the separation of alcohol from other products in shops, the most controversial element of legislation to reduce consumption in Irish society.
He told the Seanad he would have a “short engagement” on the issue but stressed his bottom line was to minimise visibility in shops.
The Minister is also to delay the implementation of minimum unit pricing, which bans below cost sales of alcohol, until the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are back in operation and can introduce it simultaneously.
Mr Harris said he would implement it “at an appropriate time” to allay the concerns of a number of Senators who warned that jobs could be lost in border areas because people would cross the border to buy cheaper drink. He said Northern Ireland was moving in the same direction as the Republic.
He was speaking late last night after almost eight hours of debate on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which passed committee stage.
The legislation was stalled in the Seanad more than a year ago because of concerns among Senators including a large number of Fine Gael members about the impact of the requirements on small shops.
The State’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan was among the officials attending the Seanad with the Minister for the entire debate on Wednesday night, indicating the seriousness of the Government’s intent to proceed with the legislation.
Mr Harris said structural separation was not the be all and end all of the Bill but he said his bottom line was that alcohol had to be less visible in stores.
“It is not the same as buying milk or bread,” he said.
The Minister said the aim of the legislation was to create an environment where children are not exposed to alcohol products or advertising on a daily basis.
He said alcohol consumption should not be “considered an automatic rite of passage for every teenager”.
Fine Gael Senator James Reilly said they had to implement the legislation for the sake of children. “It’s a about a duty of care for our children”. The former minister for health and for children said there were 88 deaths per month from alcohol and it was responsible for half of all suicides in Ireland.
“There is a time to follow and a time to lead. Let us lead on this,” Dr Reilly said.
The Seanad passed 25 amendments, including five from opposition Senators before a vote was called. It was sought on the amended proposal to separate alcohol from other products in stores with a concession for smaller shop.
Fewer than the minimum five Senators necessary for a vote supported it so it did not go ahead.
Independent Senators Victor Boyhan, Rónán Mullen, Michael McDowell and Gerard Craughwell opposed the separation measures.
Mr McDowell said he fundamentally disagreed with the notion of separating alcohol from other products. He did not accept that “separating nappies from alcohol” would work at all and said the measure was “mistaken in principle”.
The former tánaiste and Progressive Democrats minister said such measures would not stop young people from accessing alcohol if they wanted to have it and the biggest issue was “to stop below cost selling of alcohol to younger people”.
But Fine Gael Seanad leader Jerry Buttimer said that when the Progressive Democrats were in government the number of off-licences “went through the roof” and access to alcohol increased.
Independent Senator David Norris said he believed “it was a great mistake to allow the sale of alcohol at petrol stations”.
Mr McDowell also said it was “patently ridiculous” to ban alcohol advertising within 200 metres or schools or crèches.
During debate on measures to restrict advertising and sponsorship Mr McDowell said the move was “an example of zealotry going slightly gaga” and he described it as “excessive law”.
“I don’t believe for one minute that a child is going to be more exposed to advertising because a hoarding happens to be near a crèche than it happens to be on a road that a child goes up and down every day.”
Sinn Féin Senator Máire Devine said she found herself in the unlikely position of half agreeing with Mr McDowell but suggested his view was an argument for banning alcohol advertising altogether.
Fine Gael Senator Michelle Mulherin referred to comparisons made with the smoking ban. She said what had been done with the smoking ban was very admirable but the desired result there was that nobody would ever smoke.
“We’re not suggesting that people will never drink” She said they had to navigate a system of support for people to end binge drinking and to work with the industry.
“They are not part of the problem they are part of the solution.”
The Bill passed committee stage and will return to the Seanad for the final report stage next week.