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Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Alcohol pricing.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Alcohol pricing. (21 May 2019)

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Deputy Declan Breathnach: I would like to thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this Topical Issue matter. The purpose of seeking it is to get clarity from the Minister of State on the timelines for the implementation of the section of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 that relates to minimum unit pricing. I emphasise once again the futility of enacting this Part of the Act in the absence of any similar minimum pricing in the North of Ireland. The rumour has been doing the rounds in the trade, from the chambers of commerce to Retail Excellence Ireland members and some members of the Vintner's Federation of Ireland, that the Department may be on the verge of enacting or implementing this Part. Every Member will be aware of the importance of minimum unit pricing and a majority of this House, including myself, saw, and still see, fit that this Part be enacted. When we debated this issue, the necessity that this legislation would have to operate simultaneously on the island of Ireland was flagged, otherwise there would be an outflow of shoppers to the North of Ireland, not just to buy alcohol, but to do their weekly shopping as well, thus inflicting problems on the retail industry, be they pubs, bars, off-licence trade, or the livelihoods of small shopkeepers who lose out to the larger supermarket outlets, particularly in the Border region. In 2015, when he was Minister for Health, the Taoiseach stated in the Seanad:


While we are not writing it into the Bill, it is our intention to go ahead with minimum pricing at the same time as Northern Ireland. We have an agreement with the Northern Ireland Executive that it will also introduce minimum unit pricing. We intend to do it at the same time for all the obvious reasons. It would be totally counterproductive if people just went north of the Border. While it is not written into the legislation, as we do not want to totally tie our hands, it is certainly the intention.


The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, when addressing the issue in the Seanad in 2017 stated:

I take the point about Northern Ireland and acknowledge Senators from the Border area, including Senators O'Reilly, Wilson, Gallagher and any I have missed, who raised this issue. I understand that we always have to be conscious on the island of Ireland of the impact of what we do in one area on the other.


He went on to state:

There is a Government decision on trying to do this alongside Northern Ireland. We need a government to talk to in Northern Ireland but that is for another day. Northern Ireland was moving in this direction but the Government will commence this at an appropriate time. The purpose of the Bill is to put the legislative framework in place to enable the Government do that.


I support the Taoiseach and the Minister of Health's stances on that and the need to continue with it, once we have similarity in approach both north and south of the Border. The activities of some supermarkets in using alcohol as a loss leader, especially last Christmas, were probably the most extreme abuse of alcohol as a product to date. In one outlet, a bottle of Captain Morgan rum was on sale at €10, when the combined excise and VAT on that product was €12.30. Another outlet was selling six bottles of wine with a 25% discount and a £10 voucher. This offer, again, was below the combined excise and VAT for the product. I could go on, but I would not want to blame the Minister of State for being tempted to introduce minimum unit pricing on account of this activity, as what is often missed is that the State is subsidising this activity of below-cost selling through the VAT system. I urge him not to be influenced by that greed


Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Finian McGrath): I am stepping in for the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. I thank Deputy Breathnach for raising this important issue. The Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 was enacted on 17 October 2018. Its primary policy objectives are to reduce alcohol consumption to 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per person per annum by 2020; delay the initiation of alcohol consumption by children and young people; reduce the harms caused by the misuse of alcohol; and regulate the supply and price of alcohol in order to minimise the possibility and incidence of alcohol-related harm. These objectives were developed in recognition that alcohol causes harms to health and significant costs to the Exchequer, and that alcohol consumption in Ireland remains very high.


Section 11 of the Act provides for a minimum price of alcohol products of 10 cent per gram of alcohol. Government approval was originally given in 2013 for the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol on the basis that it would be introduced simultaneously in the North of Ireland. As the Executive in the North of Ireland is not currently operating, minimum unit pricing cannot be introduced there and, therefore, the Minister for Health is constrained from implementing this measure due to a circumstance that was not foreseen in the original decision. As he outlined in the Seanad last October, he intends to return to the Government to seek approval for this measure and will do so shortly. Minimum unit pricing will target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength because the price is determined by and is directly proportionate to the volume of pure alcohol in the drink. This means that the price of individual products will depend on their strength. It sets a floor price beneath which alcohol cannot legally be sold and targets products that are currently very cheap relative to their strength.


A sample application of a 10 cent minimum price per gram shows that it will affect only the cheapest of products sold in off-licences. The prices of products sold in the licensed trade are unlikely to be impacted by a minimum price of 10 cent per gram. A pub measure of whiskey would cost €1.12, a measure of vodka would be €1.05 and a pint of Heineken lager, Guinness stout and Bulmers cider would be €2.25, €1.89 and €2.02, respectively. The aim of minimum unit pricing is to target harmful drinkers - those who drink so much that they are putting their health in danger. The measure is targeted and it attempts to minimise the impact on moderate drinkers and the minimum price will make little difference to those who only drink low or moderate volumes of alcohol.


Effectively, the price of alcohol products will depend on their strength. Minimum pricing is considered effective because international evidence shows that those who consume alcohol at harmful levels tend to purchase cheaper alcohol relative to moderate drinkers and, therefore, the policy impacts harmful drinkers the most. In addition, a minimum price will mean that strong alcohol products are not cheaply available for children and young people.


Deputy Declan Breathnach: Will the Minister confirm that the Department will introduce this portion of the Bill shortly? That is contrary to what the Minister said in the Seanad. I have lived my life on the Border and witnessed the sharp movements and volatility of vast currency fluctuations. I have witnessed unsequenced budgets, not to mention the vulnerability we currently have with Brexit. I am going to speak for the small businesses that will be seriously affected by the introduction of this. Unless there is a reciprocal arrangement on an all-island basis, we will go back to the days of smuggling, illicit trade and losses to both businesses and Revenue. If the Minister is intent on forging ahead with this, as he appears to be, he will do damage to our economy and our trade. He mentioned 10 cent per gram on alcohol but without a reciprocal commitment by the Northern Executive, there will not be a bottle of wine for less that €8, a standard bottle of spirits will be at least €24 and a standard 500 ml can of beer will be at least €2.


Without co-ordination North and South, this will drive people to shop abroad. The sugar tax was co-ordinated when Deputy Michael Noonan was Minister, with the tax being introduced North and South, and if the Minister of State attempts to do otherwise, which he suggested will happen shortly, we will go back to unregulated sales into the South, including to minors and the vulnerable people he is purporting to help. My party and I support this section of the Bill but I represent the people who will be affected the most, whether they are in Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan, Louth or Sligo. The Minister is dealing with an issue that is connected to Brexit and will do harm to the trade of small retailers along the Border region. I urge him to desist.


Deputy Finian McGrath: I thank the Deputy for raising this issue on behalf of businesses along the Border and I will take his points back to the Minister for Health. A minimum price unit of 10 cent is likely to affect the price of only a small proportion of products in any off-licence. The aim of minimum unit pricing is to target harmful drinkers - those who drink so much that they are putting their health in danger. The measure is targeted and attempts to minimise the impact on moderate drinkers. The minimum price will make little difference to those who only drink low or moderate amounts of alcohol.


Minimum unit pricing will target cheaper alcohol relative to strength because the price is determined by, and is directly proportional to, the volume of pure alcohol in a drink. Effectively, the price of alcohol products will depend on their strength. In view of this, it is the Minister's intention to seek a revised Government decision to implement minimum unit pricing of alcohol as soon as possible to address the significant health harms and financial costs of alcohol consumption.

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