The power of big business has been exposed in the Oireachtas through the successful recruitment of cross-party support in opposing and delaying passage of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. Not since cigarette smoking was banned in public places has there been such intense lobbying. Politicians from all parties, along with Independents, were recruited by the industry and it has taken nearly three years for the Bill to reach its final stage. There is no certainty that it will be implemented.
The Government was accused of being anti-business, of jeopardising jobs and of making Ireland a 'global pariah'
The Bill involves four interventions designed to protect public health and reduce alcohol consumption. It introduces minimum pricing; the segregation of alcohol from normal domestic items in retail outlets; detailed labelling, including cancer and other health warnings and alcohol content; and the regulation of advertising of drink products, designed to protect children.
The latest onslaught by the drinks industry came yesterday when the Government was accused of being anti-business, of jeopardising jobs and of making Ireland a "global pariah" by including a cancer warning on alcohol products. It followed a positive change of mind on the inclusion of cancer warnings by Minister for Health Simon Harris, albeit one that ran counter to advice from his Department that warnings of strokes and heart attacks should be rotated with cancer warnings on labels.
Because some EU countries are opposed to the inclusion of a cancer warning in this fashion, Irish legislation will almost certainly be challenged through the European Court of Justice. Efforts by the Scottish parliament to introduce minimum pricing were delayed for six years by such tactics. Ireland would be the first country to introduce such a warning on domestic sales and the transnational industry is concerned that other countries may follow suit.
Orchestrated resistance to this legislation has taken many forms. Initially, it was opposed because of the cost to local retailers of physically separating alcohol products from other items. When the European Court approved Scotland’s minimum pricing regime, the industry raged against the inclusion of health and content warnings on bottles and encouraged the craft brewing sector to become involved. In all of this, the Government was careful to ensure the legislation would not damage Ireland’s extensive export business in spirits and liquors.
The tenacity of the drinks industry in protecting its profits at the expense of public health has been single-minded. Like the tobacco industry before it, political lobbying, deliberate obfuscation and delay were the weapons of choice. Harris must now ensure that any court challenge to a single element of the Bill will not inhibit the enforcement of others. In political terms, this has been a supine, shameful exercise.