Alcohol Bill: Not a full measure

In spite of its limitations and fudged decisions, some elements will have positive impact on public health

 

Postponing tricky decisions has been elevated into an art form by this Government. The latest manifestation of this ‘lord make me pure, but not yet’ approach involves the long-promised Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, published during the week by Minister for Health Leo Varadkar. Minimum pricing, limits on advertising and on point-of-sale drink promotions are provided for under the legislation.

But they will not take effect until after the election. In the meantime, positive headlines can be garnered from a long-awaited initiative to limit excessive drinking, while any backlash arising from higher drink prices will be postponed.

There is less to this legislation than was intended. Former junior minister Róisín Shorthall wanted to ban alcohol advertising at all major sporting events. But an intensive lobbying campaign by the industry in 2013, involving ministers, coalition and opposition TDs and the major sporting organisations, killed the proposal dead. The best that can be hoped for at this stage is that the idea may be revisited in the future.

In spite of its limitations and fudged decisions, the Bill should be welcomed. It is the first time alcohol abuse has been addressed as an Irish public health issue.

Official reports and recommendations by medical experts gathered dust over decades while a binge-drinking culture developed at huge cost to the health services. Three lives are lost each day to excessive drinking while patients with alcohol-related illness occupy 2,000 hospital beds.

The main target of the Bill is below-cost selling at supermarkets and garage forecourts. The Minister will set a minimum price limit for beer and wine to discourage excessive consumption. The Government has the support of pubs and off-licences for this divide-and-conquer approach, because of their loss of market share to new entrants.

With an uncluttered Dáil schedule, the legislation could become law by the middle of next year. For that to happen seamlessly, however, the present Government will have to be re-elected and there is no certainty of that happening.

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