Working to reduce alcohol harm

Spending and availability

The National Income and Expenditure Annual Results show that €6.54 billion was spent on alcoholic beverages (including pubs) in 2015.

This is more than we spent on alcohol than in any of the previous five years (2010-2014) and accounts for 7% of personal consumption of goods and services. To put this €6.54 billion figure into context, when the amount spent on alcohol is compared with other categories in the CSO’s analysis of consumption of personal income it shows that it was:

  • Almost eight times what was spent on non-alcoholic beverages in 2015
  • Almost twice what was spent on clothing and footwear in 2015
  • 85% of what was spent on food (excluding meals out) in 2015

Spending and availability

The widespread availability of cheap alcohol has caused a dramatic shift in our consumption of alcohol from the on-trade to the off-trade in recent years and means that we are now buying a lot more of our alcohol from large multiple retailers.

Since the abolition of the Restrictive Practices (Groceries) Order in 2006, alcohol in Ireland can be sold below cost and a retailer can then recover the VAT on the difference between the sale price and the cost price.

The Health Research Board (HRB) has pointed out that, ‘in effect, this means that the government is subsidising large retailers that can afford to sell alcohol at below cost price’.

A price survey carried out by Alcohol Action Ireland in July 2016 shows that, purchasing the cheapest alcohol available in the off-trade:

  • It is possible for a woman to reach her weekly recommended low-risk limit of 11 standard drinks for €4.95.
  • It is possible for a man to reach his weekly recommended low-risk limit of 17 standard drinks for €7.65.

Strong and cheap drinks are the alcohol products favoured by the heaviest drinkers among us, who generally seek to get as much alcohol as they can for as little money as they can, and are most at risk of alcohol-related illnesses and death. They are also favoured by young men and women, who generally have the least disposable income, are more price sensitive and have the highest prevalence of binge drinking.

  • The off-trade in Ireland (e.g. supermarkets, convenience stores etc) now accounts for 60% of all alcohol sales.
  • We spent more than €50.6 million on alcohol in the week prior to the National Alcohol Diary Survey.
  • In the week prior to the survey 43% of drinks were consumed at home, 42% in a pub/nightclub and 10% in restaurant or hotel.
  • There was a five-fold increase in the number of off-licenses in Ireland between 1990 and 2006.
  • Between 1998 and 2010 there was a 161% increase in the number of full off-licences, while pub licences decreased by 19 per cent over the same period.
  • In a survey of drinking behaviour among European 15 and 16-year-olds, 77% of Irish respondents said that alcohol is ‘easy’ or ‘fairly easy’ to get.
  • 74% of 15 and 16-year-olds have used alcohol during their lifetime.
  • 35% of 15 and 16-year-olds have used alcohol in the past 30 days.

Follow this link for Alcohol Action Ireland’s view on the need for structural separation of alcohol from the other products for sale in supermarkets and other mixed retail premises.

Follow this link to find out about minimum unit pricing and how it works to save lives and reduce alcohol harm

Alcohol affordability in Ireland

Affordability has been an important driver in the growth of alcohol consumption in Ireland, which has doubled in the past 50 years. Alcohol affordability seeks to measure people’s ability to buy alcohol, which is a function not just of price, but also of disposable income.

While much is made of Ireland’s relatively high excise duty rates in relation to other countries, the reality is that alcohol remains very affordable, especially when bought in the off-trade (where excise duty can be absorbed and offset against other goods), which means that people can drink to harmful levels for relatively little.

Real alcohol prices have decreased rather than increased in the EU member states during recent decades, as price trends have strengthened rather than limited the effects of growing disposable income on alcohol affordability. The steep decline in real alcohol prices in Ireland was brought about by a prolonged period of rising disposable income, no change in excise duty and the abolition of the Groceries Order in 2006, which has led to the widespread availability of very cheap alcohol in the off-trade, particularly supermarkets.

The Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy reports that there was a dramatic increase in the affordability of alcohol relative to disposable income between 2002 and 2007. In 2002, one week’s disposable income would have purchased 162 cans of lager (500ml) from the off-trade, whereas in 2007 one week’s disposable income would have purchased 234 cans – a 44% increase.

Alcohol affordability increased in all EU member states except Italy between 1996 and 2004 and in Ireland it increased by 50%. This change in affordability was, in turn, accompanied by substantial increases in levels of alcohol consumption, with corresponding increases in all the main indicators of alcohol-related problems.

An analysis of alcohol affordability in Ireland showed that between 1995 and 2007 the affordability index increased by 102%, driven by an increase of 111% in real disposable incomes. Between 2008 and 2012, affordability fell by 11%, due to a decline in real disposable incomes. However, with economic recovery, this situation is changing again. The increase in alcohol consumption during 2014 is an indication of this change and is a cause for concern given our high levels of alcohol harm.

The Minister for Health warned that the increase in alcohol consumption in 2014 is “probably related to the upturn in the economy and represents the first increase in alcohol consumption in a number of years. If that is the case, it is a matter of real concern, because it indicates that without policy change, as more people return to work and they have more money in their pockets, they are likely to drink more of it”.

For further information see Alcohol Action Ireland’s Pre-Budget Submission 2017.

So what does the Irish public think?

The Health Research Board’s  Alcohol: Public Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviours report (2012) found that:

  • 76% of respondents had purchased alcohol in a supermarket in the last few years
  • 52% believe the price has decreased
  • If the price in supermarkets was to decrease further, 24% of respondents said they would buy more alcohol, while 50% of those aged 18 to 24 said they would buy more alcohol
  • 45% agree that they buy more alcohol when it is on special offer or when the price is reduced, but 65% of those aged 18 to 24 agreed with this statement
  • It would require a 25% increase in price to get 67% of those purchasing alcohol in a supermarket to buy less alcohol and a 10% price increase to get 35% of those buying alcohol in a supermarket to decrease the amount of alcohol they purchase
  • 58% of respondents support minimum unit pricing for alcohol, with support strongest among those aged 35 to 64 at 65%
  • 21% would not support a minimum price for alcohol, with lack of support highest among those aged 18 to 24 at 33%
  • 47% agree that the Government should reduce the number of outlets selling alcohol, while 28% disagree. Agreement is strongest among women (50%) and those aged over 44 (54%)
  •   40% agree with selling alcohol in a separate premises to food and other household products, while 32% disagree