Rethinking our drinking

Fionnuala Carolan, ShelfLife editor
Fionnuala Carolan, ShelfLife editor

The introduction of minimum pricing legislation will make the retailing of alcohol fairer but we also need to tackle our national attitudes towards drinking, writes Fionnuala Carolan



18 January 2012

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Happy New Year to you all!

While we are barely settled back into the daily grind, there is an important issue being debated in the press this month that has a major influence on the grocery trade – the minimum pricing of alcohol legislation.

The many small shops and off-licences that rely solely on alcohol sales were negatively affected by the supermarkets using alcohol as a loss leader over the holiday season. Smaller shops just couldn’t compete with these below cost prices.

Róisín Shortall, Minister of State at the Department of Health has suggested that supermarkets and off-licences must sell alcohol for above the cost price plus taxes and excise.

She said that declining prices and more widespread availability of cheap alcohol in major retailers had become key factors in fostering a culture of excessive alcohol consumption in this country.

While the Minister told Matt Cooper on The Last Word on Today FM on 9 January that she was not ‘anti-booze’, she did believe that Irish people had an “unhealthy relationship” with alcohol.

During a presentation to the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Health and Children at the end of last year, both the National Off-Licence Associaton (NOffLA) and the Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society (MEAS) group agreed that there was an unnecessary over-reliance on self-regulation and voluntary codes of practise with regard to alcohol sales in Ireland and these codes weren’t being adhered to by the supermarkets.

NOffLA called on the government to enact legislation which already exists, Sections nine and 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act (2008), to ensure that alcohol products would be separated from other products in supermarkets and any mixed-trading businesses.

According to NOffLA, at the time that this act came into existence, the Minister for Justice agreed to defer both sections in favour of a voluntary code of practice, on the condition that the industry code of practice was strictly observed and implemented by the Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland group. This has not happened so they now feel that the law must be enforced fully.

However, simply raising the minimum price of alcohol or bringing in legislation pertaining to where alcohol can be placed in a store is not going to change the inherently negative relationship we as a nation have with drink.

The availability of alcohol in Ireland is not any different to that in any other country. In fact measures have been taken here to curb the availability in that one can’t sell alcohol after 10pm in an off-licence outlet. If we raise the price of alcohol there are fears that people will drive to the North to purchase it there, but surely the fact that we have to even consider this should sound alarm bells.

The supermarkets only sell alcohol below cost because it is such a guaranteed footfall driver. The alcohol issue in Ireland is a very difficult one to resolve because high alcohol consumption is so entrenched in our culture.

TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan was on the Ray D’Arcy show last week also discussing this issue. He doesn’t believe that price will deter young or old from drinking to excess. He thinks it’s a cultural problem and pointed the finger at the actions of the likes of Bertie Ahern in his role of Taoiseach greeting visiting dignitaries with a pint of Guinness; having the main rugby competition in Europe named after a beer brand and the fact that children were wearing sports clothing with the name of alcohol brands emblazoned across them every day of the week. He also spoke of the discounted price of alcohol in the Dáil bar which he was quick to point out he has never purchased seeing as alcohol isn’t his drug of choice!

Flanagan has a point. We are far too accepting of alcohol abuse in our society. We applaud drunken behaviour and encourage one another to drink to excess. Changing the law will make the retailing of alcohol fairer but educating the next generation to have a healthy relationship with alcohol and changing the mindset of a nation is what is really needed.

Fionnuala Carolan



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