Alcohol lobby fights back
Is Leo Varadkar in thrall to the drinks industry or simply unprepared to confront vested interests
Is Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in thrall to the drinks industry or is he simply not prepared to confront vested interests? Varadkar has signalled that debate on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will be deferred until the autumn while his offer of a free vote on the Fixed Penalty-Drink Driving Bill may represent the kiss of death for Shane Ross’s legislation. Former Fine Gael minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, who had charge of the Public Health Bill before being replaced, thinks the alcohol lobby is winning.
Accusing the drinks industry of using the same tactics as “big tobacco” in resisting health-related measures, Corcoran Kennedy believes efforts are now being made to unpick the provisions of the Public Health Bill. This is the first time alcohol has been treated as a public health issue in this State. But the legislation now proposed is a pale shadow of what was intended. Originally, Róisín Shortall had recommended a ban on sports sponsorship; limits on advertising; point-of-sales display controls and minimum pricing. Three years later, following intensive lobbying, the ban on sports advertising was dropped in a Bill introduced by Varadkar as minister for health.
The next phase of the battle centred on a requirement that alcohol products be physically separated from household goods in retail outlets. Under pressure from small businesses in particular, Fine Gael Senators blocked the legislation last October. It has remained in limbo in spite of a Government offer to appease both sides. There is also uncertainty about a North/South plan to co-ordinate the introduction of minimum pricing.
The campaign against the legislation has been comprehensive, linking lost media advertising revenues, to reductions in support for artistic events and predicted damage to jobs and exports. Not a mention of public health and the 1,500 hospital beds that are occupied each night by patients with alcohol-related illnesses. Much is made of a 20 per cent drop in consumption since the Celtic Tiger years, but Ireland still ranks eighth in the world for alcohol intake. We have a serious problem. Lets do something about it.