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

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Alcohol pricing. (29 Sep 2020)


Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív - Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar an ábhar seo. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht teacht isteach anocht agus éisteacht leis an gcás atáim ag déanamh. Nílim in aghaidh óil ach táim in aghaidh an iomarca óil de bharr an dochar a dhéanann sé do dhaoine. Is é sin atáim ag iarraidh a mhaolú. Mar a deirtear i nGaeilge, nuair a bhíonn an deoch istigh, bíonn an chiall amuigh. 

There is a saying in the Irish language that when the drink is in, the sense is out. We know the truth of that statement. There can be no doubt that cheap alcohol is having a damaging effect in our country. The vast majority of the Oireachtas agreed with that in 2018 when we passed the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018. That Act included provisions setting a minimum price for alcohol. If implemented or commenced, this Act will have no effect on the cost of most alcohol, which is already sold at prices in excess of the proposed minimum. However, the Act will work to stop sales of really cheap drinks with very high alcohol content. 

The Act sets a minimum price per gram of alcohol. A standard drink has 10 g of alcohol in it. A standard drink is a half-pint of beer, lager or stout, a small 100 ml glass of wine or a pub measure of spirits. The Act sets the cheapest price for a gram of alcohol at 10 cents. This would mean, for example, that a glass of lager or beer could not be sold for less than €1 and a pint could not be sold for less than €2. We can extrapolate the minimum cost of bottles and so on from that. Since most drinks are sold at higher prices than this, the Act would mainly affect very cheap drinks with a strong alcohol content. It is not a tax and it will not affect the price of drink above the minimum price level. 

In July 2019 the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, said he hoped to implement minimum unit pricing of alcohol in order to reduce the significant health harms and financial costs of the way alcohol is consumed in Ireland to the greatest extent possible. These harms and costs include alcohol-attributed deaths from motor accidents, domestic violence, liver disease, breast cancer and other issues. These account for 21.2 deaths per 100,000 in this State, compared to 15.09 deaths per 100,000 in the North. To put that in context, the Global Burden of Disease Study finds that up to 20,000 deaths in this country could be attributed to alcohol diseases and other related deaths since the Act was first mooted in 2013. 

The excuse given for not acting on this was that people would travel across the Border for cheaper drink. This might happen but it would not undermine the general effectiveness of the law. The same argument could be made in the case of Scotland, which has a land border with England. However, the Scottish are happy to note that their legislation is having an effect. According to statistics published following the introduction of the relevant Act there, alcohol consumption has dropped to the lowest level on record. Again, let us not forget that Scotland has a land border with England. When Covid-19 is added to the mix, it becomes even more important for people to keep their wits about them. It is time that we commence this section, which was passed by the House. We should not put it on the never-never, but take action. 

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Frankie Feighan) - I want to begin by welcoming the raising of this very important topic by Deputy Ó Cuív. The programme for Government promises to honour our long-standing commitment to the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol products in consultation with Northern Ireland. 

As Minister of State with responsibility for this issue, I want to assure the House from the outset that there is no ambiguity whatsoever on the importance of this issue or on the need to see progress with the implementation of the Act. As the Deputy rightly said, the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 is a major aspect of the work of my Department's alcohol and tobacco unit. As a result, it is an issue that I will make every effort to progress in my time in office as Minister of State. 

The Act was enacted on 17 October 2018. Its primary policy objectives are to reduce alcohol consumption to 9.1 l of pure alcohol per person per annum; to delay the initiation of alcohol consumption by children and young people; to reduce the harms caused by the misuse of alcohol; and to regulate the supply and price of alcohol to minimise the possibility and incidence of alcohol-related harm. These objectives were developed in recognition of the harms to health and significant costs to the Exchequer caused by alcohol and the fact that alcohol consumption in Ireland remains high.

Section 11 of the Act provides for a minimum price of 10 cents per gram of alcohol for alcohol products. Minimum pricing is considered effective because international evidence shows that those who consume alcohol at harmful levels tend to purchase cheaper alcohol than do moderate drinkers. The policy therefore impacts harmful drinkers the most. In addition, a minimum price will mean that strong alcohol products are not cheaply available to children and young people. Minimum unit pricing will target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength because the price is determined by and is directly proportionate to the amount of pure alcohol in the drink. This means that the price of individual products will depend on their strength. It sets a price floor 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 affects only the cheapest of products sold in off-licences. The prices of products sold in the on-licensed trade are unlikely to be impacted by a minimum price of 10 cents per gram. For example, under minimum unit pricing, 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 Bulmer's cider would be €2.25, €1.89 and €2.02 respectively. The aim of minimum unit pricing is to target harmful drinkers, that is, 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. 

In 2013 the Government decided to approve the introduction of a minimum unit pricing regime on the basis that minimum pricing would be introduced simultaneously here and in Northern Ireland. This position of all-island co-operation is reaffirmed in the programme for Government. The reason for simultaneous introduction is to allay concerns in relation to possible impacts on cross-Border trade if the measure was to be introduced in one jurisdiction only. 

We welcome the recent commitment on the part of the Northern Ireland Minister of Health, Robin Swann, to hold a full public consultation on the introduction of minimum unit pricing in Northern Ireland. Following a letter I sent to the Minister last month, I reiterate that I look forward to working with him on this important public health measure in order that both jurisdictions can avail of the benefits of the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol products. 

The Deputy is correct that it has been a success in Scotland. We hope that we will be able to follow that example in conjunction with our colleagues in Northern Ireland……..

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