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Minimum pricing is a mixed bag

January 8th, 2022 5:10 PM

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THERE has been a lot of talk this week about the new minimum unit pricing on retail alcohol sales.

The measures were brought in this week, having been stalled earlier in the hope that Northern Ireland would bring their own prices into line with our plans, but that hasn’t happened. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and the Minister for Public Health, Well Being and the National Drugs Strategy Frank Feighan both welcomed the new measures, given the emphasis has been very firmly put on the health benefits of such a move.

They said that Ireland is now one of only a small number of countries in the world to introduce minimum pricing. Scotland was the first in Europe to introduce it in 2018, followed by Wales in 2020. Other countries and territories which already have a legal minimum price include the Russian Federation and regions in Australia and Canada, they pointed out.

A minimum unit price of 10c per gram of alcohol is provided for in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 and this new minimum unit pricing will set a price beneath which alcohol cannot legally be sold.

The new rules target products that are cheap, relative to their strength. The minimum price is determined by, and directly proportionate to, the amount of pure alcohol in the drink.

The ministers said the new rules were designed to reduce the harms caused by the misuse of alcohol and to delay the initiation of alcohol consumption by children and young people.

Minister Donnelly also said they would reduce the pressure on our health services from alcohol-related conditions. ‘It worked in Scotland and I look forward to it working here,’ he said emphatically.

Minister Feighan said the government was taking the action to ensure that cheap and strong alcohol would not be available to children and young people at ‘pocket money’ prices, and to help those who drink to harmful levels to reduce their intake.

‘I am proud that Ireland is among the first countries in the world to introduce this measure and to take real action to help those who need it the most,’ he added.

‘Alcohol is a major cause of illness and disease, hospitalisations, self-harm and violence in Ireland,’ added the HSE in a tweet on Tuesday.

The ink was barely dry on the new rules when a number of retailers around the country noted what they believed was the poor timing of the new pricing.

One shop in West Cork pointed out that some slabs of beer would now jump from €25 to over €45, and others from €29 to over €47. This comes at a time when shops around the country are still reeling from the effects of Covid and some have major staff shortages this week and are barely able to remain open.

There is also the issue of shops in border counties now finding that their stocks of alcohol could be left on the shelves, as customers use the advantage of proximity to Northern Ireland to stock up on their alcohol purchases.

There were even reports of bus companies running trips over the border for ‘beer shopping’, such are the savings to be had.

It’s too early to say if these changes will have the desired health benefits, but there is no doubt there will be quite a few economic disadvantages for retailers.

Changes to the legislation regarding where and when we could buy and use cigarettes had the desired effect of making smoking less acceptable and probably helped our health service too.

But those who continued to smoke do not seem to have been discouraged unduly by the massive rise in the price of cigarettes in the past decade.

It may yet transpire that the best deterrent for excessive or underage drinking is education about its harm – the carrot, rather than the stick.

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