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Home > Seanad debate: Adjournment matters - Alcohol pricing.

[Oireachtas] Seanad debate: Adjournment matters - Alcohol pricing. (08 Nov 2011)

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Adjournment Matters - Alcohol Pricing
Vol. 211 No. 4
Tuesday, 8 November 2011 

Senator Deirdre Clune: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me the opportunity to raise this issue of the cost of alcohol. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Shortall, and I am glad she has come before the House because she has a particular interest in the area. The issue at hand is the price at which alcohol is being sold in many outlets across the country. It arose as an issue following the abolition of the groceries order six years ago. There was a suggestion at the time that alcohol would not be included in the measure and there would be a floor below which the price could not fall. That did not happen.
In the past ten years we have seen a sharp rise in the number of premises licensed to sell alcohol, and they now include petrol stations, supermarkets and convenience stores. At the same time, and probably as a result of the economic climate, traditional pubs across the country have seen their numbers fall. The issue was brought to the fore last week by the father of David Higgins, a young man who died tragically by suicide. I heard the man on the radio last week and he attributed his son’s death to the availability of cheap alcohol and all-night parties. My home has students and my home town also has a university and Cork Institute of Technology. Drinking at house parties before young people go to clubs has become very popular and such activity happens on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night.
There is much alcohol available very cheaply and taking in all the supermarkets, the price of alcohol is amazing. It is not unusual to get a can of beer for a euro or even less depending on the time of year or the type of loss leader that the supermarkets wish to promote. There have been calls to amend the practice for some time, although I do not know what action is possible, there are issues of competition, for example. There must be some way to introduce a control on the price of alcohol.
Many groups are calling for this control, particularly the Vintners Federation of Ireland, although people might think that group would seek control of the price of alcohol because it is in competition with supermarkets and off-licences. I have always maintained that vintners and licensed premises have a certain responsibility. They do not want to lose their licences and can also see if somebody is taking too much alcohol and needs to be controlled. We are all aware of those kinds of scenario.
When somebody buys a lot of alcohol from a supermarket or off-licence and drinks it at home, there is nobody to tell that person that enough drink has been taken. Drinking in a licensed premises means the environment is controlled. We must respect that. I have examined supermarkets and garage outlets and young people could be selling the product. That is not to say they are irresponsible but they certainly do not have the same interest in the welfare of those to whom they sell the alcohol.
In the media today there is a report from the Health Research Board about the significant increase in health problems relating to alcohol. We all know the social consequences. Last week Alcohol Action Ireland called on the Government to tackle alcohol pricing Under the umbrella group, the ISPCC is supporting calls for minimum pricing to protect young people. The Irish Cancer Society is seeking minimum pricing for health reasons and Barnardos is doing so in highlighting parental abuse of young people arising from alcohol consumption. Research from the Rape Crisis network indicated that 80% of people investigated in rape files sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions had been drinking. There are numerous examples of organisations supporting this position so I ask the Government to consider the issue and investigate what can be done to ensure this phenomenon is tackled. We have seen its effects and it must be dealt with.
The price of alcohol can be very high in some pubs, which might have an effect on the issue. Alcohol is a drug that should be controlled and we are in a very dangerous position, particularly as we consider the effect on young people in society.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Róisín Shortall): I thank Senator Clune for raising the issue, which is quite timely. Apart from the report from the HRB, to which the Senator referred and which indicated we have alarming rates of alcohol consumption in this country, another report was launched this morning by the North West Alcohol Forum. This report outlined the severe impact that alcohol consumption by parents has on children due to the lack of care and neglect that this leads to in many families. These effects on young children can last for life. The report also drew attention to the fact that a significant number of children are taken into care due to the drinking habits of their parents. It is a timely debate and I welcome the increasing public support, not only as outlined by the various groups mentioned by the Senator, but in the general realisation that we have got to a point in this country where we have done enough damage to ourselves through the abuse of alcohol.
Alcohol abuse has cost us very dearly, both in human and financial terms. It has cost us about €3.7 billion due to the huge burden on the health service, lost productivity, days away from work and the costs involved in child care for those children abused due to the abuse of alcohol. We have no choice at this stage other than to address the problem in a comprehensive way.
A steering group was set up to address the issue of alcohol abuse in 2009. It is chaired by the chief medical officer of the Department of Health and representatives of different Departments, agencies and interests in this area. That steering group recently completed its work. The final touches are being put on the report and I hope to receive it in the next couple of weeks. I will be bringing that report to the Cabinet in respect of proposals we will make to address all the aspects of the alcohol abuse problem in this country.
There is no doubt it is a cultural problem and we all need to examine our attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol. It is sometimes convenient to talk about alcohol being a problem that affects young people in disadvantaged areas or in particular marginalised groups, but the reality is that as a society, we all have a problem with alcohol. We drink too much. We drink more alcohol in this country per head of population than any other country in Europe. We drink to get drunk more often than anybody else, and young people do exactly the same. They largely do what they see their parents doing. For that reason, there is a real onus on legislators to address this problem.
In recent years, the problem has got out of control, partly due to the boom and partly due to the relaxation of the licensing laws and the lifting of the groceries order. The World Health Organization indicates that availability and price are two key factors in respect of controlling the use of alcohol. For this reason, some of the recommendations coming from the steering group will be on availability, licensing and pricing. This is not straightforward. Personally, I am committed to introducing minimum pricing. However, there are legal obstacles to that and I am awaiting legal advice. There is some case law on minimum pricing for tobacco products, and I hope to get the legal advice shortly. Our colleagues in Scotland published a Bill this week to introduce minimum pricing and in many ways they are far ahead of us. It is also being considered in Northern Ireland. If it is possible, I would like to see it.
It is important to point out that minimum pricing is not going to penalise people who are moderate drinkers. I have got some negative feedback with people saying that their only treat is a bottle of wine at the weekend. Minimum pricing will not penalise moderate drinkers. It will have a marginal impact on them. It will have a significant impact on people who have a problem with alcohol and young people. The drinking habits of young people are very price sensitive and alcohol is being sold at below cost in supermarkets. Sometimes supermarkets take a hit on the excise duty and VAT. One supermarket recently advertised two bottles of wine for €5, yet the VAT and excise duty comes to more than that. There is a price war taking place between the supermarkets at the moment and that has to be addressed.
While people are concerned that they might lose the opportunity to get a bargain on alcohol, it is important to point out that this is a false economy. While supermarkets are using alcohol as a loss leader, it means they have to recoup that money through groceries and so on. People are paying for it in other ways. Overall, we are all paying a big price as alcohol costs us €3.7 billion.
I hope that we have concrete proposals in the next few weeks, as soon as we have had an opportunity to consider the recommendations from the steering group. I know there is strong support within Cabinet to act on this and that there is cross-party support as well. It is now time to deal with this national problem.
Senator Deirdre Clune: Will the Minister of State be publishing the report of the steering group? There have been reports published on the availability of alcohol and the licensed premises that can sell it. That was never linked to planning regulations. I have been on councils where we tried not to grant an application for an off-licence when there were many objections among the local community, but An Bord Pleanála overturned the decision because it is not a planning issue. Hopefully the report will cover that.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: It is my intention to publish the report. I recently presented on the alcohol issue to the Oireachtas health committee and I gave a commitment to come back with the draft proposals. As there is a high level of cross-party concern about this, I am very keen that as many Members as possible have an opportunity to consider the recommendations and to suggest amendments. I am very open to that. The only way forward is on a cross-party basis, and I am determined to achieve that.

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