Varadkar opposed to further changes to alcohol Bill

The Dáil is set to debate the controversial proposed legislation on Tuesday

The Government will not accept any further amendment to controversial legislation to deal with Ireland’s alcohol crisis when debate starts in the Dáil on Tuesday.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill took two years to get through the Seanad after intense lobbying on each of its four main provisions – the introduction of minimum unit pricing; structural segregation of alcohol from other products in supermarkets and retail outlets; detailed labelling requirements including health warnings, calorie and alcohol content; and restrictions on advertising and promotions.

The Department of Health has already referred the Bill to the European Commission for observation after it introduced changes to the legislation. The commission must be alerted if significant amendments are made to the Bill that could affect competition.

The legislation now provides for a broadcasting watershed, which means no alcohol advertising can be aired before 9pm.


Cancer warnings

Minister for Health Simon Harris also accepted Opposition amendments requiring evidence-based cancer warnings on all advertising and labels. He also agreed that health warnings should take up one-third of the label on alcohol products.

The commission is expected to respond by the end of April, before which the Government cannot enact the legislation, but the committee stage is expected to be completed by the end of February.

The drinks industry has warned it will be negatively affected by the health warnings and has begun lobbying TDs on the labelling and advertising changes.

But when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the Seanad last Thursday he indicated there would be no further amendment to the legislation.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged the concerns of Senators and the changes to accommodate small shops and said the Minister “did a good job in the Seanad in getting that Bill passed”.

But he warned: “I certainly do not anticipate that the Dáil will revise it. This House has already done the revision so I do not anticipate that the Dáil will revise it. We are not contemplating any further amendments to it.”

Small retailers

Mr Varadkar has a major commitment to the legislation. As minister for health he introduced the Bill in the Upper House in December 2015 where it passed second or introductory stage before the February 2016 general election.

It stalled for more than a year when it came back for debate in October 2016 after a large number of Senators, predominantly from Fine Gael, opposed the structural segregation of alcohol from other products on the grounds it would be too costly for small retailers.

The legislation was finally passed in the Upper House in December after Mr Harris agreed concessions for smaller retailers.

The Seanad also agreed that manufacturers would not have to produce the health warnings on labels to avoid international competition difficulties but the law will require that a health warning label must be on bottles “at the point of sale”.

Speaking about world cancer day on Sunday the Minister for Health said “reducing alcohol intake is an important step in reducing the burden of cancer”.

Mr Harris described the Bill as “a landmark piece of public health legislation, which will make a real difference when it comes to reducing the harm caused by alcohol, and I would appeal to all parties to support it”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times