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20/11/2013

Ireland taking major steps on alcohol policies in the new Public Health Bill

Alcohol misuse in Ireland is a complex and multi-faceted problem and there is no single solution to it. While the measures put forward for inclusion in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill are by no means the perfect plan, they are broad ranging and they are also workable and achievable. They are a good start.

By Alcohol Action Ireland

Though it may seem to strange to many, particularly given the high-profile nature of our relationship with alcohol, the recently announced measures to deal with our harmful drinking mark the first time that alcohol misuse has been addressed as a public health issue by an Irish Government.

Alcohol-related harm in Ireland currently claims three lives a day and costs the State an estimated €3.7 billion annually, putting a particular strain on our already overburdened health services, where 2,000 beds are occupied by people with alcohol-related illnesses every day.

Alcohol also plays a major role in a wide range of other very serious issues for Irish society, such as crime, suicide and child welfare. The harm that is caused by our drinking extends far beyond the individual who is drinking, to impact on families, their own or other people’s, communities, schools, hospitals and businesses throughout Ireland.

At an individual level, the majority of Irish drinkers are still drinking in a harmful manner. Our per capita consumption is 11.7 litres of pure alcohol per person aged 15 and over (which equates to a bottle of vodka each every week), a situation that is exacerbated by our unhealthy drinking patterns, particularly the prevalence of binge drinking.

The evidence regarding the need to tackle alcohol-related harm has been overwhelming for a long time and reports have been mounting for years now without anything happening in terms of a national strategy, so it’s very encouraging to finally see this Government announce its intention to take decisive action to tackle what is undoubtedly a major public health issue.

Crucially, these measures, which were brought forward by Minister Alex White and the Department of Health, address the key areas of alcohol-harm reduction, including the pricing, marketing and availability of alcohol.

Pricing

Minimum pricing will be a central plank of the Government’s alcohol strategy and it has the potential to be a life-saving measure. It sets a “floor price”, beneath which alcohol cannot be sold. It is able to target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength because the minimum price is determined by, and is directly proportionate to, the amount of pure alcohol in a drink.

These strong and cheap drinks being sold at “pocket-money prices” in the off-trade, which now accounts for 60% of all the alcohol sold in Ireland. This is a particular problem in supermarkets, where these drinks are often used as a “loss leader” and slabs of beer, for example, are sold at below cost.

These types of drinks are the alcohol products favoured by two vulnerable groups - the heaviest drinkers among us, who are most at risk of alcohol-related illnesses and death, and our young people, who generally have the least disposable income.

What minimum pricing won’t do is affect the price of alcohol in pubs or restaurants or the majority of alcohol products sold in the off-trade. Therefore it targets those most at risk, while having little or no effect on low-risk drinkers.

Two issues that are frequently raised in relation to the introduction of minimum pricing in Ireland are fears over cross-border trade and whether or not it would be sanctioned under European law. In relation to the first point, both Governments, North and South, are working closely together on minimum pricing and plan to introduce the measure at the same level and the same time.

A minimum price needs to be set at a level the evidence indicates will reduce the burden of harm from alcohol use. To do this requires an analysis of the market, alcohol consumption and expenditure patterns, among other information, and a cross-border health impact assessment is currently being carried out as part of the process of developing a legislative basis for minimum unit pricing. It is due to be completed in 2014.

Minister White and Minister for Health James Reilly have also made it clear that both Governments intend to introduce minimum pricing at the same time to avoid any potential issues related to cross-border trade.

Questions around the legality of minimum pricing are likely to be answered by a case taken against the Scottish Government by the alcohol industry. Scotland introduced minimum pricing in May 2012, but the bill was challenged by several alcohol industry bodies, who claimed that minimum pricing breaches the UK’s European Union (EU) Treaty obligations because it would restrict trade.

However, even if this were true, Article 36 of the EU Treaty makes it clear that public health measures such as minimum pricing are legal, provided they are proportionate. Or, in other words, it does not preclude potential restrictions “justified on grounds of ... the protection of health and life of humans”.

In May of this year the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court, ruled in favour of the legality of the Scottish Government’s plans to introduce minimum pricing – the only judgement on the matter so far. This ruling has been appealed and the matter is expected to come before the European courts.

Marketing

The announcement by Government that the marketing and advertising of alcohol in Ireland is to be moved from the current system of voluntary codes and placed on a statutory footing, with a number of restrictions to be placed on current marketing and advertising practices by the drinks industry, is also of crucial importance if we are to change our harmful relationship with alcohol.

Self regulation of alcohol marketing and advertising has clearly failed in Ireland and our young people, in particular, through a variety of media, are constantly exposed to positive, risk-free images of alcohol and its use.

Comprehensive studies have shown that children and young people are not only exposed to a large amount of alcohol advertising, but that their behaviour and beliefs are influenced by these positive messages about alcohol and its use, increasing the likelihood that they will start to drink and drink more if already using alcohol.

The range of measures announced to address the marketing and advertising of alcohol include an “evening” watershed for advertising on TV and radio; advertising of alcohol in cinemas limited to films classified as over-18s and to restrict advertising of alcohol in outdoor media from 2018, with a statutory code of practice to be introduced to govern such advertising in the meantime. There will also be limits set on how alcohol can be portrayed in advertisements.

These measures will go a long way towards helping to protect our young people from these sophisticated and powerful influences on their drinking behaviour and expectations. However, digital and social media are increasingly important in this regard and are not addressed by these measures.

Sports Sponsorship

The Government has not committed to a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports, but this issue is instead to be addressed by a working group, chaired by the Department of An Taoiseach, which will report back in 12 months.

The proposal from Minister White does not seek an immediate ban, but that the sponsorship deals are phased out by 2020, leaving a lot of time to secure sponsorship from other sectors. Therefore we believe the Department of Health proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship of sports is not only the right thing to do, but also proportionate.

Availability

Separating alcohol from other products in retail outlets will be crucial in helping bring an end to the present situation, where alcohol is being sold as if it is just another every day item a family’s shopping basket, like bread or milk. Alcohol is not a grocery and it’s time we stopped treating it like one.

The Government’s intention to address the widespread availability of alcohol is therefore welcome. This is another area, like alcohol marketing and advertising, where a voluntary code will be replaced with a statutory code, with Environmental Health Officers given powers to enforce the regulations.

The new statutory code will be reviewed after two years and if it is not achieving the policy objectives of Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act (2008), then Section 9 may be commenced, which would see retailers legally compelled to structurally separate alcohol from the other products in mixed retail outlets.

Labelling

The introduction of labelling is also a very positive move, as it will, for the first time, include clear warnings on alcohol products sold in Ireland about the dangers which alcohol poses to our health, as well as information regarding the strength and calorie content of the alcohol product.

Conclusion

Alcohol misuse in Ireland is a complex and multi-faceted problem and there is no single solution to it. While the measures put forward for inclusion in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill are by no means the perfect plan, they are broad ranging and they are also workable and achievable. They are a good start.

When implemented, they should work to reinforce each other as part of a comprehensive approach to finally begin to tackle our harmful relationship with alcohol, which will in turn improve the health, well-being and safety of all Irish people.