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Alcohol is a Drug – and Must be Legislated as Such

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The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is expected to come before the Dáil for debate in the Autumn Session, almost two years since it was introduced.  The Bill “aims to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres per person per annum by 2020 and to reduce the harms associated with alcohol,” according to the Bill’s preamble.

The five main provisions of the bill are minimum unit pricing (MUP), health labelling of alcohol products, regulation of advertising and sponsorship of alcohol products, structural separation of alcohol from other goods and increased regulations on sale and supply.

There is much to debate on the Bill, with both big drinks companies and small importers unhappy with aspects of the Bill.  This month I’m only going to focus on the independent sector and their reaction to the bill as in large part I’m in agreement with them.

The National Off-Licence Association (NOffLA) has welcomed both Minimum Unit Pricing and Structural Separation, whereby supermarkets and convenient stores will be forced to properly separate alcohol from food and other supermarket products.

MUP in Scotland is currently being challenged and the EU may find against the provision – a decision is due on this near the end of the year.  If the EU finds that MUP is in breach of EU trade laws then this aspect of the Bill will fail.  Hence NOffLA are calling for a ban on below cost selling to be implemented at the same time to reduce the prevalence of ultra-cheap alcohol sales.

For NOffLA members this is about survival – there have been a number of closures and job losses in the independent sector in recent years, with supermarkets increasingly using cheap alcohol as a means of driving footfall.  I see this as irresponsible and anti-competitive; predatory pricing is costing jobs in the independent off-licence sector, in my view the most responsible retailers of alcohol we have.

The issue of structural separation was brought home to me by a conversation overheard by a friend of mine recently.  At most of the discount supermarkets the alcohol section is positioned beside the tills and a small child was overheard say to his mother “when I grow up that’s what I’m going to drink,” – as he pointed at a bottle of rum depicting a merry pirate, “Pirates are the best!”

A worry that many independent importers have is the requirement that alcohol products will be required to carry calories and various other health information.  Asking every bottle to be labelled in this way is completely unfair as no small wine producer selling 20 cases of a high-end wine into Ireland is going to be willing to change their label, so the importer is going to be forced to do this before it leaves the bonded warehouse.

Placing calories on a bottle of wine may deter the casual drinker that is worried about their health and weight, but it will have zero impact on a problem drinker. There has to be some flexibility on this, surely a sign depicting typical calorie levels beside the alcohol section and appropriate advertising and educational campaigns would also be needed – straightforward, informative ones rather than the patronising woolly ones that are currently being used.

We will return to this topic in more detail again but my own current view is that alcohol is a drug and there should be restrictions on how and where it is sold.  It should not be used as a means to sell more toilet paper and cleaning products (i.e. the type of products that are rarely discounted in supermarkets and where their profit comes from).

Education and a change of attitude is the key to reducing alcohol abuse here in the long term and the Government needs to do more than tinker around the edges with pricing and calorie counts.