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Home > Dail Eireann debate. Leaders’ questions [Alcohol pricing].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Leaders’ questions [Alcohol pricing]. (12 May 2021)

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Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick - I wish to raise minimum unit pricing for alcohol, a measure the Government is introducing.


I fully support any measures taken to tackle the problem that society faces with alcohol. I was a member of the health committee when this legislation was examined and I fully supported it then.


This legislation is right but it comes at the wrong time, as our friends in the North do not appear to have any appetite to introduce similar legislation. If the legislation is to be successful, as we all want, it must be introduced at the same time in the South and the North. That must happen for quite a simple reason, as the cost of drink today is substantially lower in Northern Ireland and with the introduction of this legislation's provisions, drink costs could be as much as double the prices in Northern Ireland. We all know that will lead to shoppers from the South going in their droves north of the Border to buy cheap alcohol, and this will have devastating effects on many businesses in the South and particularly in the Border area.


I am deeply concerned about the effects this will have on the retail trade in my home town of Dundalk. I have spoken to people in many local businesses about this and they are really concerned. I fully support the measures but there is potential for a devastating effect on Border area businesses.


The problem is that when shoppers head north for cheap drink, they will also buy goods that they could buy at home, such as groceries, clothes and other goods. To have a level playing field we need authorities in the North to introduce similar legislation, as was done in Scotland. The Scottish legislation was introduced in 2018 and it has already seen substantial reduction in alcohol-related deaths and illnesses. This must be the main focus but there is no point in one part of the island of Ireland introducing measures to combat alcohol consumption, while other parts of the island take no action.


Has the Taoiseach spoken to the Northern Ireland authorities about this? Does he intend to speak to them about it? What measures can the Government introduce to protect the many businesses that will be adversely affected by the new legislation? I urge the Taoiseach to consider today what supports the Government could give to those businesses that have already suffered greatly as a result of the lockdown and which now face another threat to their livelihood as a direct result of this legislation.


The Taoiseach is from Cork and I remember years ago people from his county, as well as Limerick, Dublin and Galway going in their busloads to Northern Ireland in order to buy alcohol. Such people do not just buy enough for the week but instead they go to bulk-buy. This will be devastating for families, as we all know the damage can alcohol can do. Will the Taoiseach consult the authorities in the North about this? I supported the legislation when it was being examined by the health committee as we were told the North and South would act jointly on this on an all-island basis..


Micheál Martin, The Taoiseach - I appreciate the Deputy raising this very important matter. I also appreciate that the Deputy supports the broad thrust of the policy and its underpinning rationale. We are seven months away from the introduction of minimum unit pricing, which will happen next January, and I appeal to the Northern Ireland Executive, all political parties in the North and anyone with influence on those parties to support a measure like this in Northern Ireland in order that we can have complete alignment.


There have been discussions between the two Departments of Health and the indications from the Northern Ireland Executive were that it was not going to consider this until 2023, if at all. There has been all-party agreement on this legislation in this House for quite some time, going back to 2018 and to 2013 and the reasons are obvious. The view is that the below-cost selling of alcohol is harming children and young people in particular. Some of the figures are quite horrendous. For example, Ireland had the third highest level in the world of adolescent binge drinking, at 61% for females and 58.8% for males, according to data from the global study on progress in adolescent health and well-being published in The Lancet in March 2019. Teenagers and children binge drinking bring significant issues for us as a society.


There is also an impact on hospitalisation and mortality figures. In 2012, the cost of alcohol-related discharges from hospital was €1.5 billion and the estimated cost of alcohol-related absenteeism from work was €41 million in 2013. In 2015, one in seven workers suffered work-related problems due to others drinking, including one in 20 workers reporting having to work extra hours due to co-workers drinking, with an estimated cost of €46 million.


There are also wider concerns related to hospitalisations and it is now estimated the number of hospitalisations wholly attributed to alcohol rose by 94% between 1995 and 2018 from 9,420 to 18,348. These figures are from the Department of Health and provided from clinical settings. From 2008 to 2017 there were 10,000 alcohol-related deaths and the Health Research Board reckons these data are likely to represent an underestimate of alcohol-related mortality in Ireland. The National Cancer Registry estimates that at current consumption levels, by 2035 male cancer cases attributable to alcohol will increase by 37% and female cancer cases will increase by 110%. Hence, the view of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, that we must move on this.


Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick - As I stated, I fully support the legislation but its provisions are being introduced at the wrong time. The bottom line is that once the provisions are enforced, the price of alcohol in the South will almost certainly be double that in the North, and this will have devastating effects on local businesses, particularly in Border areas. Will the Taoiseach commit today to speaking with Northern Ireland authorities and urge them to follow us with this legislation?


I support this measure being introduced on the island of Ireland. It annoys me that since the start of the pandemic and when Brexit was being negotiated, the island had an opportunity to work together but we missed that opportunity. We all want to see a united Ireland and things working out well but we must work very closely with the North. Please contact the authorities in the Northern Ireland Assembly, work together and get this sorted out. The gap between North and South is getting bigger when we should be getting closer. The provisions of this legislation will not just affect Border areas, as it will also affect the entire country. Will the Taoiseach work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and try to get this sorted out?


Micheál Martin,  The Taoiseach - We will do that. As I stated, I appeal to the Northern Ireland Executive on this. We are seven months away from this being implemented. The legislation was passed in 2018 and my understanding is it had all-party agreement at the time. The Northern Ireland Executive should align with this policy and I appeal to the parties to give this serious consideration. It is really designed to help young people and children, while avoiding the exploitation of below-cost selling, to be frank, and the patterns of alcohol consumption it creates, particularly among children and teenagers.


All the studies on alcohol demonstrate the harm caused by misuse of alcohol is closely related to the time of initiation to alcohol consumption; in other words, the earlier a child starts drinking, the greater the likelihood of problems later in life. We know from experience with tobacco and other areas that price matters in this respect, particularly in terms of children and young people. We will contact the Northern Ireland Executive on this and continue our engagement with it.

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