The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has been subject to intense debate again recently. It was first proposed in February 2015 as an attempt to combat alcoholism in Ireland, but has faced opposition ever since, stymieing its enactment. If the bill does pass, it will include a review before the end of the first three years, to determine its effectiveness and progress at that point.
But, judging from the controversy it has attracted since it was put forward, it could be some time before we will see it in action.
Although the Taoiseach said that he was determined to have the legislation passed by Christmas initially, he now concedes that it will most likely be introduced early next year. The bill passed the committee stage in the Seanad last week but is now delayed for consultation with concerned parties. In this week’s Focus, we take a look at all the sides of the argument.
Contents of the Bill
The bill recommends that the minimum price per gram of alcohol be €0.10, as a means of combating low price alcohol products and promotions. In addition to this, there will be health warnings on labels advising of the damage alcohol can cause to health, particularly for pregnant women, as well as labels highlighting the alcohol content and calorie count of each product. Advertisements must include similar health warnings.
There are also extensive guidelines on how to advertise alcohol in the bill. It will be illegal, for example, to market it in a way that might appear glamourous or appealing to children. There will also be restrictions on advertising locations, such as proximity to schools and childcare centres as well as public transportation, or at sporting events or other such activities that could potentially have children in attendance. There will be new restrictions on advertisements in print too, and new regulations in relation to sponsorship.
The most controversial element of the bill is the separation of the off-licence section from the other produce in shops, so that alcoholic products are not visible immediately visible to the customers. It stipulates that customers should only have to access this area if they wish to purchase alcohol and that they should not have to walk through it to gain access to any other area of the shop.
Opposition to the Bill
Some elements of the drinks industry are fiercely opposed to sections of the bill, although many also claim that they take no issue with the sentiment to combat the health issues caused by alcohol. They say that the bill will negatively impact the industry in a number of ways.
The Alcoholic Beverage Foundation of Ireland (ABFI) released a video in September illustrating what the new advertising measures suggested in the legislation would look like, using the iconic Guinness TV Christmas ad as an example. In it, they show that large chunks of the ad would have to be removed to be in compliance with the bill, as the future marketing of drinks will restrict the use of a storyline, images of people, locations that aren’t the one in which the product is made, animals or conviviality.
In a statement issued by the organisation, the director, Patricia Callan says that discussions of the bill in the Dáil lack “balance.” She highlights the fact that Ireland “already has some of the strictest rules for marketing alcohol products in the world.” She mentions the World Health Organisation statistics, saying that alcohol consumption has dropped by 25% in Ireland since 2005, and that Ireland, in terms of underage drinking, has fallen from 8th to 28th place in terms of national consumption based on the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs. She believes that the bill should focus partially on education regarding the safety of alcohol usage, which she says it does not currently do in any capacity.
The ABFI also says that “the advertising proposals in the Alcohol Bill are not backed by evidence and will unfairly impact an indigenous industry that supports over 210,000 jobs.” Although Callan acknowledges that Minister Harris will be meeting with small retailers, she points out that no effort has been made to engage with manufacturers, “including the small brewers and distillers that will be impacted by this legislation . . . despite the significant economic contribution made by these businesses.”
But not all stake-holders in the alcohol industry feel the same way. The Vintner’s Federation of Ireland (VFI) released a statement saying, “publicans urge the Minister to expedite Public Health (Alcohol) Bill,” and that VFI “fully supports” the bill. Padraig Cribben, Chief Executive of the VFI says that not all elements of the industry are opposed to the bill and called criticism of its implementation in small shops “a cynical move, initiated and supported by large retailers to distract from the fact they continue to use cheap alcohol as a loss leader and a footfall driver.” He says that “all medical experts agree [that the bill] will save lives,” and that he believes that Minister Harris needs to “step up and take decisive action.”
Simon Harris has said that there will be no change in the cost of the majority of alcohol products, contrary to what some in the drinks industry say, but “what it will do is target particularly cheap brands, very high in alcohol,” and that he thinks “it is a very appropriate public health policy.” He is adamant that “we need to debunk the accusation that we are trying to increase the price of a pint,” and that “we have a lot of myths but not many facts in some of the arguments put forward by industry.”
By far, though, the most intense opposition comes in relation to the segregation of alcohol.
The section of the bill that has been most controversial is the area dealing with separation of alcohol products from all other products in shops. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, it may be difficult and expensive for small shops to facilitate the so-called ‘booze curtain,’ by cordoning off an entire separate area for alcohol that effectively reflects the State’s guidelines. Michelle Mulherin, a Fine Gael senator said that most small shops would be unable “to section off a whole area with its own-door access,” and that she believes the bill will not curb people drinking as much as it will “drive them to the supermarket.”
The worry that the guidelines will impact small businesses negatively is significant. Minister Harris has been engaging with small shop-owners in an attempt to negotiate an alternative solution. For the time being, the initial proposal to completely hide alcoholic items is off the table. Another possible option may be to allow limited shelving space for the products instead. More discussion is to take place on this issue before anything definitive comes out of it, which will likely delay the introduction of the legislation further.
Regardless of these potential compromises, until the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is consulted when it resumes operation, the measures will not be introduced. This is because businesses operating on the border may be vulnerable to loss of revenue as a result of customers driving to Northern Ireland to avail of the cheaper pricing there.
Simon Harris has suggested that the bill cannot protect these businesses unless the Northern Ireland Executive brings in similar minimum pricing rules, which they have expressed interest in doing. Nevertheless, speaking to TheJournal.ie, he also said that there could be another two year delay in enacting the bill as a result, since it will be most effective when introduced on an “all-Ireland basis.”
Some argue that members of the drinks industry are overestimating the validity of their contribution to the debate, since the bill is so tightly bound with national health issues. Maeve Leahy, Chief Executive at the Rutland Centre, which deals with substance abuse in Ireland told Limerick Life that she welcomes the bill. She says that, “as a service we advocate for those most affected by the harms of alcohol and we disagree that an industry who are driven solely by making profits for shareholders should have any say in public health policy.”
“In the Rutland Centre’s view, the purpose of the Public Health and Alcohol Bill is not specifically to address addiction but to address the underlying culture in Ireland around alcohol which, for some, can lead to addiction.” She says that the bill will not effectively stop anybody, whether addicted to alcohol or not, from purchasing it anywhere in Ireland but that it may have the effect of “de-normalising” alcohol for future generations and that it is hoped that the legislation would have “longer-term” positive effects on addiction. In terms of those currently recovering from alcohol dependency, she says that reduced visibility of alcohol allowed by the restrictions on advertising laid out in the bill could be helpful for those individuals. She says that “we regularly hear from service users in early recovery that challenges present themselves every day due to the ubiquitous presence of alcohol in our society and so a shift in culture here would make it less challenging for a person in recovery.”
Alcohol Action Ireland expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “alcohol is not a grocery and it’s time we stopped treating it like one.” The organisation has hit out against what they consider to be aggressive lobbying from the drinks industry, who they say have been spreading inaccurate information. Head of Communications and Advocacy for the organisation, Eunan McKinney said in a recent statement: “our legislators cannot continually seek some degree of special derogation of responsibility for private interests, while the wider society grapples with the impact of a significant public health crisis.” He says that, since the bill was first introduced in 2015, “a further 2,000 lives have been lost to alcohol related illnesses, [and] over 100,000 children have commenced drinking alcohol” in the duration of time that it has been debated in the Dáil thus far.
According to the group, alcohol consumption in the country almost trebled since 1960, when it was 4.9 litres, to 14.3 litres in 2001, at its peak. The figures for 2016 stood at around 11 litres. A report on the Alcohol Action Ireland website states that “this decline has not been consistent throughout those years, with changing levels of affordability, related to excise duty and economic factors, having a direct and immediate impact on population consumption patterns.” With the introduction of the Public Health Bill, the government hopes to reduce this figure to 9.1 litres by 2020.
Alcohol is listed as a group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, bowel, and female breast are indicated as risks for alcohol use and the risk increases as consumption does. Every year, around 900 people, 500 of whom die, are diagnosed with cancers that can be linked to alcohol in Ireland, according to the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP). The NCCP states that just one standard drink per day increases the risk of breast cancer by 9%, compared with non-drinkers, while 3 to 6 units per day increases the risk by 41%. Alcohol-related deaths in Ireland are higher than the European average. Alcohol-related cancer rates are expected to double for women and increase by 81% for men by the year 2020. Alcohol also significantly increases the risk of liver cirrhosis and liver disease.
The stakes are high for all concerned parties in this debate and disputation surrounding the bill shows no signs of abating any time soon, with both sides of the divide accusing the other of spreading misinformation. It seems a decision will be made as soon as there is significant agreement on what our priorities, as a nation, are.