Government must tackle cut-price alcohol sales

 

OPINION:The fact that health and drinks lobbies are in tune for once is a real sign that the time is right for legislation, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

WHEN IT comes to the narrative on alcohol misuse in Ireland, it’s not often you get the public health and drinks lobbies singing from the same hymn sheet. Some weeks back, I took part in a public debate on alcohol, sponsored by The Irish Timesand Pfizer. The panel was made up of regular and experienced commentators on the alcohol issue, including Prof Joe Barry from Trinity College Dublin and treatment counsellor Rolande Anderson. Representing the drinks industry was Pádraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners Association.

The public health lobby has consistently argued for reduced per-capita consumption of alcohol, while the drinks industry spends millions each year in marketing and advertising trying to achieve the opposite effects. Consensus is therefore not easily reached between the two.

Yet, what was remarkable about the debate was that both the public health and the drinks industry (as represented by the vintners) agreed on the need for tighter controls on below-cost alcohol pricing. This could be very significant.

In both Ireland and the UK, significant shifts in drinking patterns have emerged in the past decade. Less and less drinking is taking place in bars and restaurants, with the off-premises retailers, such as supermarkets, garages and off-licences, now the main dispensers of alcohol. This is creating problems for publicans, but also for society as a whole. The conscientious publican is being bypassed by a whole generation who can buy alcohol significantly cheaper than ever before.

Part of an alcohol Bill brought in by the Scottish Nationalist Party in recent weeks in a bid to tackle Scotland’s significant alcohol problems sought to introduce minimum alcohol pricing for the first time in any EU state. What this would have allowed for was a set minimum price (somewhere in the region of 25-75p) per unit of alcohol, thereby bringing to an end below-cost selling in retail outlets.

Many aspects of the Bill were passed with little debate, including a clampdown on cheap drink promotions and tighter ID controls. Yet the minimum-pricing part was rejected after hard lobbying by the Scottish drinks industry.

The Irish Government has a chance to address this issue in the next budget. In contrast to the Scottish experience, the fact that vintners and the public health lobby occupy the same position on this may pave the way for a part consensus approach.

These are measures the Irish Government will have to legislate for themselves as there is no great European consensus when it comes to specific legislative measures aimed at tackling below-cost selling. Partly this is because Europeans engage with alcohol very differently from country to country. Generally in Europe, the further north you travel the less alcohol is associated with food and the more it is seen as a means of mood altering in its own right. In Ireland the drinks industry website for promoting responsible alcohol use – meas.ie – advises drinkers to “eat well” before going out; the separation of alcohol and food is culturally assumed.

The legislation is needed at this point because supermarket chains and other off-trade retailers are engaged in scandalous practices of selling low- or below-cost alcohol. For example: Mace is currently offering bottles of Australian wine at €3.99 each as part of a ‘Price Fighter Wines’ summer special. Similarly, the Topaz garage chain has a summer offer of 20 bottles of Bavaria Crown beer for €17.99. That works out at about

90 cent per bottle – or roughly the same as a small bottle of water.

The other area of concern the Government needs to tackle is outdoor alcohol advertising. It is now time to impose stricter regulations on where alcohol products can be advertised publicly. This morning, I took a drive within a three-mile radius in Cork city, to document a sample of the outdoor alcohol advertising in Irish cities. Half a mile from my home was the first large billboard advertising Budweiser Ice Cold, located about 400 yards from one of the largest primary schools in the area.

At the end of Summerhill North is the Leisureplex, a large bowling and indoor entertainment complex which is a hang-out for adolescents and also specialises in children’s parties. Opposite the front entrance a large billboard advertises a new hangover remedy.

Continuing on, across the road from a girls’ secondary school in Turners Cross, an off-licence and bar has a large banner promoting the fact that for every alcoholic drink bought, the bar will donate 50 cent to the local League of Ireland soccer team. If out of sight means out of mind, then in sight has to mean in mind. Too many of these billboards were within the daily commute of school children and adolescents. Self-regulation is clearly not going far enough.

Perhaps, though, the most prime advertising spot in Cork city belongs to Murphy’s stout, located across a railway bridge at one of the main entry points to the city. The large banner has a picture of a pint of stout and reads, somewhat ironically: “Murphy’s: The Official Pint of Us”.


Brian O’Connell is a journalist and author of Wasted: A Sober Journey Through Drunken Ireland

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