Home > Seanad Eireann debate. Alcohol pricing: motion.

[Oireachtas] Seanad Eireann debate. Alcohol pricing: motion. (16 Nov 2011)

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Acting Chairman (Senator Ivana Bacik): I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall, to the House.


Senator Catherine Noone: I move: 


That Seanad Éireann:

-          accepts that we need to enforce a minimum price for alcohol, based on the price per unit of alcohol;

-          notes that selling alcohol for below cost price is an incentive to the purchase of alcohol;

-          notes that excessive consumption of alcohol is damaging for the health of individuals;

-          notes that the average age for a first drinking experience is declining;

-          recognises that below cost selling of alcohol can be damaging for individuals, families and communities; and

-          recognises that alcohol-related crimes have risen in the decade from 2001 to 2011.


I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the House. Alcohol, the purchase of alcohol and alcohol abuse comprise a problem that must be tackled. This motion outlines some methods that we can use to begin to tackle it. Affordability and easy access, as acknowledged by many reports in this field, are the two chief problems that need to be addressed to curb consumption. When talking about affordability and easy access, we need to draw a distinction between off-trade, which is that of off-licences, and on-trade, which is that of pubs. Put simply, the minimum price per unit of alcohol is not designed to hurt Irish pubs or stop business.


It is clear that the majority of people who go to their local pub for a social drink act sensibly and responsibly. However, it is important that we protect vulnerable and susceptible people in society. A six pack of beer bought from an off-licence can cost between €1 and €2 per can, a price which underage drinkers can easily afford. Providing they have access to an older relative or friend who is willing to make the purchase, these youngsters can obtain a decent amount of alcohol for a relatively small cost.


It makes sense to introduce this initiative because the health and economic benefits are clear. In regard to health implications, Alcohol Action Ireland has pointed out that an Irish male can reach his low risk drinking limit for less than €10, while a female can reach her limit at €6. These are off-trade prices and they equate approximately to one hour’s work on the minimum wage. The motion before us begins to address this problem. An EU health report concluded that the affordability of alcohol in Ireland rose by 50% between 1996 and 2004 and suggested that an increase of 1% in affordability results in an increase of 0.22% in consumption. It is plain that increases in alcohol affordability, particularly in the off-trade environment, have been accompanied by increases in consumption. A decrease in affordability can be expected to have an inverse effect.


That the off-trade business is booming is evident from the fivefold increase in the number of off-licences between 1990 and 2006. Last year a “Prime Time” programme highlighted the ease with which underage children could obtain alcohol through delivery services.


Accessibility and affordability are key problems which must be addressed if we are to make progress on this issue. The sensible solution is to set a minimum price for alcohol based on the price per unit. Senators van Turnhout and Crown have made valuable proposals on amending our motion and, in the interest of harmony, I am happy to include their suggestions on describing alcohol content in grams as well as units in order to pre-empt future changes to measurements.


There can be no ambiguity about the cost of alcohol to the economy. It is estimated that alcohol abuse cost Ireland €3.7 billion in 2007 and treating alcohol related problems in hospitals costs the health system an estimated €1.3 billion per year. The increased costs associated with vandalism and work absenteeism can also be attributed to excessive alcohol consumption. The combined cost of these social and economic problems are approximately €1.5 billion. The chief medical officer estimated that a 30% reduction in alcohol abuse would save €1 billion for the taxpayer, not to mention the numerous lives, families and communities that would benefit from such a change.


We need to bring about a change in our attitudes and, by introducing a minimum price for alcohol we can begin to effect that change. By curbing the quantities of alcohol bought and consumed outside the pub environment, we will foster changes in attitudes towards alcohol and a decline in its abuse.


The health implications of alcohol are plain. There is a clear link between alcohol and depression. Most suicide attempts occur when the individual concerned has consumed alcohol. We need to discuss this problematic relationship openly and maturely. The days of denying these problems and their causes are over. Alcohol related deaths have increased steadily between 1995 and today. As many as 30% of injury related admissions to emergency departments are due to alcohol. A floor price for alcohol would reduce consumption and, in turn, the number of alcohol related illnesses, suicides and deaths.


This proposal is not unprecedented. A national price initiative taken in Canada is regarded as a success story and in March 2011 the Northern Ireland Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety proposed a minimum price for alcohol sold in the North. Under the latter proposal the minimum price for a bottle of wine would be between £4 and £7 and a six-pack of beer would cost between £4.40 and £7.70. These prices are designed to impact on the booming off-trade environment. If possible, we should reach a cross-Border agreement on minimum alcohol prices. If Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide to introduce minimum pricing, we should attempt to co-ordinate prices for obvious economic reasons. If similar initiatives are not taken in the North people in Border counties will be able to travel north to buy alcohol for cheaper prices.


In the 1990s, eight out of ten Canadian provinces introduced social reference pricing, whereby a floor price was set for alcohol. This initiative was considered a success, with a Canadian addiction research centre stating there was clear evidence that minimum pricing had significantly reduced alcohol consumption. The level of alcohol consumption per capita is far lower in Canada than in Ireland. An annual average of 9.77 litres of alcohol is consumed per person in Canada, compared with a figure of 14.41 litres in Ireland.


For a multitude of reasons relating to business, society, health and crime, we need to enforce a minimum price for alcohol and I am proud to commend the motion to the House.

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