Alcohol can be a killer. Its malign effects are felt throughout society, in broken families, health problems, addiction and death. When it comes to doing something about the situation, however, the industry and its retail agents object strenuously. Elected representatives have not been canvassed so assiduously since the smoking ban in 2004. These vested interests have succeeded in delaying the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill for two years and the legislation has only now reached the Dáil.
Young Irish people, under 24 years of age, top the list of binge drinkers in the European Union, consuming six or more drinks in each session. Overall, we are the fourth heaviest-drinking nation in the developed world and consumption increased here in 2016. Health professionals have been campaigning for strict drinking controls for decades and while governments responded with higher taxes, they have been reluctant to impose controls over sales and advertising.
This Bill involves four interventions: minimum pricing; the segregation of alcohol from other products in supermarkets and large retail outlets; detailed labelling, including health warnings and alcohol content; and regulating advertising and promotions on television before 9 pm.
Having delayed the legislation in the Seanad by focussing on the prospect of increased costs for small retailers, the industry has switched its attack to health-related labelling. The link between cancer and alcohol is no stronger than the link between cancer and burnt toast, it maintains, and wants this carcinogenic warning removed. Exports will not be affected by this provision. But local sales will and the industry says the warning will benefit foreign competitors.
This aspect, concerning competition, may be referred to the European Court of Justice as a delaying tactic, as happened with Scotland's minimum pricing legislation. And while the Government has asked the European Commission for its opinion, a positive response may not prevent a legal challenge. When vested interests move to protect their profits, public health takes second place.