Important alcohol legislation risks running into the ground

Politicians in thrall to local shopkeepers should raise their sights and consider the welfare of their communities

Politicians of all parties are aware of the damage being caused by alcohol abuse to society. They see it in their communities, at weekly clinics, in the broken lives of constituents, in early deaths through illness and road crashes, and in overcrowded emergency departments.

Yet when it comes to identifying alcohol products as different and potentially dangerous, by separating them off from other household items, all hell breaks loose. Fine Gael TDs and Senators have threatened to vote against their own Government. Why is this? The answer can be found in lobbying by sales outlets and the alcohol industry.

We have been here before. Similar provisions were introduced – and abandoned following successful lobbying – by a Fianna Fáil-led government in 2009. This time, representatives of local shops, filling stations and supermarkets have concentrated their efforts on Fine Gael politicians. It’s working. Last month, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, 2015 was blocked in the Seanad by a filibuster. Since then, talk of revolt has become so intense within the Fine Gael parliamentary party that the Government has postponed further debate on the legislation until next year.

The Bill requires that alcohol be displayed separately from other products so that customers, and particularly children, do not regard it in the same light as other commodities. Commercial outlets argue the cost of erecting such screens would be prohibitive and have engaged in intensive local lobbying designed to prevent its introduction. That may be part of a delaying tactic by the drinks industry because the Bill also provides for the minimum pricing of alcohol, health labelling and restrictions on advertising and sponsorship.

Tackling alcohol abuse was high on the last government's agenda. But industry representations, internal disagreement and special interest pleading resulted in a four-year production delay. The Bill fell with the government. Many of its provisions have, however, resurfaced in the current legislation published by Minister of State for Health Promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.

The drinks industry emulates its tobacco cousin and employs a broad strategy involving political representations, administrative delay and legal challenge in responding to necessary regulation. If it succeeds in its present campaign, communities can expect to be hit – in the words of the president of the Royal College of Physicians Frank Murray – "by a tidal wave of illness and death associated with alcohol use".

Politicians in thrall to local shopkeepers should raise their sights and consider the welfare of their communities. Alcohol abuse can be more destructive than smoking. Elected representatives must do the courageous thing and support this Bill. If it slips down the Leinster House agenda, it may not reappear in the lifetime of the Government.