Ireland unveils minimum alcohol price plan to reduce drinking

Irish pub

A typical Irish pub [Nevalenx/Flickr]

The Irish government, aiming to change the country’s “damaging attitude to alcohol”, approved on Wednesday (9 December) plans for minimum prices for drinks in the hope of reducing one of Europe’s highest levels of alcohol consumption.

A bill to be submitted to parliament later this month would set a minimum of 10 euro cents per gram of alcohol, ban cut-price marketing, restrict “happy hours” and prohibit advertising for drinks near schools, playgrounds and public transport, a health ministry statement said.

Alcohol advertisements could only be broadcast after 9 p.m., it said, and would be banned from sports grounds during events where most participants are children.

“Ireland needs to change its damaging attitude to alcohol,” it quoted Health Minister Leo Varadkar as saying. “Four out of ten drinkers typically engage in binge drinking.”

The bill, which Varadkar said was the first in Ireland to address alcohol as a public health issue, aims to reduce average annual alcohol consumption in Ireland from one of the highest levels in Europe at 11 litres per person to 9.1 litres by 2020.

The statement noted that Advocate General Yves Bot of the European Court of Justice had said in September that a similar plan in Scotland might breach European law, but said it was working with him on drawing up the Irish law.

The Scotch Whisky Association and two European federations for spirits and for wines have challenged the Scottish legislation, saying it restricted the trade of drinks between Scotland and EU member states and could distort competition.

Ireland’s largest business lobby group IBEC on Wednesday said the legislation failed to tackle alcohol abuse and instead penalises responsible consumers and could threaten jobs.

C&C, the largest alcoholic drinks producer listed on Ireland’s stock exchange, said it welcomed the legislation but warned that the lack of restrictions on international sporting events and media platforms might put it at a disadvantage.

In Scotland, legislation was passed in May 2012 introducing a minimum retail selling price for all alcoholic beverages, based on strength and volume, the first of its kind in the European Union. A Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) at 50 pence (€0.69) per unit was introduced.

The aim is to reduce harm to society and to individual health from excessive or abusive consumption of alcohol. According to the Scottish government, the impact of excessive consumption is estimated to cost £3.6 billion (€7.97bn) per year, equivalent to £900 (€1,242) for every adult in Scotland, who buy on average almost a fifth more alcohol than their English and Welsh counterparts.

Scotland's alcohol policy was challenged by the spritis and wine industry, which filed a court case against the minimum pricing policy. The Scottish high court turned it down, saying minimum pricing act was not outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

>> Read: Scotland wins court case on minimum pricing of alcohol

Spirit and wine makers appealed that ruling before the European Court of Justice. In his opinion to the court, Advocate General Yves Bot said a member state can impose a minimum price but only if this system was superior to an alternative measure.

In other words, Scotland's plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol risks breaching EU law because it restricts trade and distorts competition. Edinburgh might therefore have to explore other ways to protect public health such as increasing tax, the advocate general said.

>> Read: Scottish minimum alcohol pricing may breach EU law

A final ruling by the ECJ on the Scottish law is expected beginning of 2016.

>> Read also our LinksDossier: Fighting alcohol harm: The EU's strategy under review

  • Early 2016: Final ruling expected on Scotland's MUP at the European Court of Justice.

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