Drinking us dry

The previously ever-reliable Irish pub trade has fallen on hard times, but lowering the price of alcohol will not solve anything, writes Kate Rothwell Pints in a pub or cans in a flat? Cocktails in a bar or a bottle of wine in your sitting room? We all know which are the more glamorous, sociable options and we also know that there has always been a vast difference between the price of drinking at home and in licensed establishments.The last few years however, have seen a rise in the trend of people spending an evening drinking in their own or their friends’ homes and a steep drop in the numbers regularly frequenting bars and pubs. Publicans have laid the blame on the implementation of the smoking ban and tighter drink-driving laws and more recently on the increasingly low-price supermarket sales of alcohol.The Vintners Federation of Ireland’s call for a minimum price to be set on the sale of alcohol is an understandable cry for help from an industry that, like many or even most others, is experiencing a crippling drop in revenue.The idea that supermarkets are selling alcohol at below-cost prices is indeed questionable, but primarily because of the dangerous opportunity that it provides in a country where binge drinking is more prevalent than anywhere else in Europe. The fact that supermarkets are trying to tempt price-wary customers with offers on alcohol so that they can outsell the competition however, is completely understandable.The stereotypically Irish thirst for alcohol was present in our society long before these recessionary times and now that many people cannot afford to drink regularly in a pub, they choose to drink at home instead.There are countries in nearby mainland Europe where alcohol is sold at an even lower price in supermarkets and yet it is Ireland which has the third-highest level of alcohol consumption in the world.Admittedly, many continental countries have a lower overall cost of living and a lower average wage, but when you speak to tourists or international students in Ireland, the price difference that shocks them the most is that of alcohol. The only thing that seems to astound them even more is the vast quantity of drink that so many Irish people consume, despite the ensuing costs to their purse, health and dignity.Various studies have shown that we as a nation have a problem with alcohol, a fact which anyone who has walked down a main street in an Irish town on a Friday, Saturday or even weekday night will most likely have already ascertained.Current supermarket prices may be fuelling the fire, but they are not what lie at the root of this issue and their restriction will not bring back the business that Irish pubs and bars have enjoyed in previous years. Our unfortunate economic situation means that there are few people who allow themselves the luxury of going to a pub two or three times a week, if even once and no amount of irritating radio advertisements trying to entice punters back will change that.And when people do go ‘for a drink’ it may well be just that – buying three or four drinks in one evening or a round for your friends is a costly undertaking. Some pubs and bars have responded to the downturn with special offers such as a pint for €3 or €4, but others still charge over €5 for a bottle of beer.Pubs and bars have undoubtedly been hit by the effects of the smoking ban and further restrictions of drink-driving laws, but these were generally lauded legislative efforts that were required in order to tackle greater social issues. It should also be noted that some legislation has been pro-pub – since 2008 no supermarket or off-licence may sell alcohol after 10pm, while pubs and bars are open and free to serve alcohol for another number of hours.The death of the Celtic Tiger was always going to be the hardest hit that this industry would have to take, but it is not only publicans who have been affected by the extent of the recession. Whatever trade their customers are or were in, they too are feeling the pinch.Nonetheless, the fact that crates of beer are being sold at the price of less than a euro per bottle is ethically questionable, but at the end of the day, anyone who is on a tight budget will choose the cheaper option. Be it €1 per bottle or three, the supermarkets will always win out in comparison to pub and bar prices.‘Pub culture’ would be sorely missed if it were to disappear from our society, but I for one believe that it is too beloved by both those who live in and visit Ireland for supermarket prices to be the final nail in its coffin. Yet while more and more people find that they can no longer afford to support the pub trade, making a profit in this struggling industry will be anything but easy.