On the 11th of January, new legislation came into effect in Ireland to further regulate the sale of alcohol. Brian Burke examines what this entails.
New legislation, under section 22 of the Public Health Alcohol Act, has been brought in to attempt to reduce the consumption of alcohol and alcohol abuse. Under the new regulations, it is illegal for supermarkets to include alcohol sales in loyalty or promotional points schemes. This means that points can no longer be gained by purchasing alcohol and they cannot be exchanged for alcohol. Multi-buy deals that involve buying a specific quantity of alcoholic bottles or cans to receive a discount are now prohibited. As well as this, discounts will not be offered on alcohol when purchased with another specific product or service. Short term discounts lasting less than three days are now also prohibited, but discounts on individual alcoholic products that last longer than three days can still be applied. Finally, alcohol products must be stored behind barriers of at least 1.2 metres with no advertisements for alcohol products visible outside of these barriers. This rule will apply to mixed-trade venues such as supermarkets but not for off-licences, airports and planes.
The aim of these new regulations, according to the HSE, is to reduce the average consumption of alcohol from 11 litres per person per year down to 9.1 litres and to reduce the harms caused by the misuse of alcohol. According to the World Health Organisation, Ireland has the second-highest rate of binge drinking in the world. 75% of all alcohol consumed in Ireland is consumed during binge drinking. Hospital inpatients requiring care related to alcohol accounts for 11% of public health expenditure and one in five ICU beds are occupied as a result of alcohol-related causes. This has become even more relevant as our health service struggles to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Another key aim of these regulations is to combat underage drinking and delay the initiation of alcohol consumption before the legal drinking age. Roughly two-thirds of males and half of females start drinking alcohol before the age of 18. Rates of alcoholic liver disease have soared by 275% among 15-34 year olds between the years 1995 and 2009. The Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, stated that he hoped these new laws would prevent young people from being able to easily access alcohol for “pocket money prices” and that an adolescent brain is at greater risk of harm than an adult when consuming alcohol. Alcohol can affect the development of the brain and the earlier a person starts drinking the greater the risk of this occurring becomes.
The new restrictions have been welcomed by the non-governmental advocacy group Alcohol Action Ireland who campaign to reduce the misuse and overconsumption of alcohol. In a statement released by the organisation, they refer to the new laws as “part of a process to de-normalise alcohol as an ordinary grocery product”. According to the group, supermarkets including alcohol products in loyalty point schemes incentivised and rewarded the consumption of alcohol and they are glad to see the introduction of legislation prohibiting this. The head of communications, Eunan McKinney, at Alcohol Action Ireland said: “these regulations will act as a small impediment to encouraging greater use and so contribute to reducing alcohol harm”. However, he also criticised the government for failing to move forward with plans to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol. “The fundamental action that is required next is the immediate implementation of minimum pricing of alcohol products, which has been interminably delayed by government inertia, yielding to the concerns of the alcohol producers”.
Minimum unit pricing would involve establishing a legal lowest price beneath which alcoholic products could not be sold, and would be based on alcohol measurements per standard drink. It targets low quality, high alcohol content products that are sold cheaply and are seen as a big source of problem drinking and alcohol harm. These cheap, high alcohol content drinks are commonly bought by young people with limited disposable income and those with alcohol problems seeking to buy as much alcohol as possible. Simply increasing the price of all alcohol might push consumers to cheaper alternatives. However, minimum unit pricing forces those who are already consuming the cheapest available alcohol to drink less. It would also have much less effect on low-risk drinkers as the price of alcohol sold in pubs and clubs would be largely unaffected. Therefore, minimum unit pricing is a better solution for tackling problematic alcohol consumption that can lead to ill health or death.
A minimum unit pricing law was introduced in Scotland in May 2018 which saw alcohol consumption drop from 7.4 litres per person to 7.1. Scotland has also seen hospital admissions for liver diseases, especially in lower-income groups, drastically reduced. The Vintner’s Federation of Ireland agrees with Alcohol Action Ireland that the new restrictions are welcome but that the introduction of minimum unit pricing is the key mechanism that needs to be introduced, and that: “the continued refusal by government to introduce minimum unit pricing dilutes the impact of the new regulations”. According to the association; “It's misleading of the Minister for Health to say that measures introduced will ensure that price promotions which result in the sale of alcohol products at pocket money prices cannot continue. This is not the case as individual bottles of alcohol will continue to be sold at giveaway prices, so in that regard nothing has changed”