Advocate General’s opinion indicates that Irish Government can proceed with a minimum unit price for alcohol

Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, said the Advocate General’s opinion, issued this morning, is encouraging as it indicates that minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol is not precluded by EU law if it is considered to be a better measure than taxation for reducing alcohol harm.

“There is nothing in today’s opinion, ahead of the final response from the European Court of Justice later this year, that impedes the Irish Government from proceeding with a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol and we fully support the Department of Health and Minister Leo Varadkar’s plans to include MUP as a key measure in the Public Health Alcohol Bill,” said Suzanne Costello, CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland.

“What the Advocate General has communicated in his opinion today is that MUP for alcohol is legal ’on condition that it shows that the measure chosen presents additional advantages or fewer disadvantages by comparison with the alternative measure’, which is taxation. The Scottish Court of Session has already considered this matter and is of the view that taxation is ’likely to be less effective in achieving the legitimate aims which the minimum pricing measures pursue’.

“As the final test for whether or not MUP meets this ’condition’ rests with the national courts, the Scottish Government is proceeding with its plans to introduce this life-saving measure, which have been delayed for over three years now by the alcohol industry. In our view there is also no reason the Irish Government cannot also proceed with its plans to introduce MUP, which can have a major impact in terms of reducing alcohol harm in Ireland, where three people die every day due to alcohol.”

Ms Costello said that MUP has a number of distinct advantages over taxation, primarily that it can effectively target the heaviest drinkers in society, while having little or no impact on those who drink in a low-risk manner.

“MUP is a vital public health measure as the cheapest, strongest drinks are the alcohol products favoured by those who are alcohol dependent, 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 illness and death. They are also favoured by our young people, who generally have the least disposable income and are the most price sensitive alcohol consumers. Those aged 18 to 24-years-old in Ireland now have the highest rates of binge drinking and dependent drinking, a situation that has very serious consequences for their health and Irish society as a whole.

“MUP is able to target the very cheapest off-trade alcohol relative to its strength because the price is determined by, and directly proportionate to, the amount of alcohol in the drink. However, it would not affect all off-trade alcohol, only the very cheapest products, and would only have absolutely no impact on the price of alcohol sold in pubs, clubs or restaurants, which is way above any proposed MUP threshold.

“By setting a ’floor price’ for alcohol that cannot be undercut MUP is therefore a more targeted measure than increasing excise duty, which applies to all alcohol products and consumers equally, while, unlike excise duty, it cannot be simply absorbed be absorbed by large multiple retailers who can then off-set it by increasing the prices of other goods, ensuring that deeply discounted alcohol remains a ’loss leader’, as well as a significant public health problem.”

Ms Costello said that the evidence shows that MUP can make an immediate difference by saving lives amongst those who drink in a high-risk manner and it will also reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions, alcohol-related crime, and workplace absences due to alcohol, thereby reducing the huge health, social and economic burdens that alcohol harm places on Irish society.

“An analysis of the impact of MUP in Ireland carried out for the Department of Health found that, irrespective of income levels, it would only have a very small impact on low-risk drinkers, with somewhat larger impacts experienced by increasing risk drinkers, and the most substantial effects being experienced by high risk drinkers.

“It was estimated that, with a €1 MUP per standard drink (10g of alcohol), alcohol-attributable deaths would be reduced by approximately 197 per year after 20 years, by which time the full effects of the policy will be seen, due to the time-lag involved with many serious alcohol-related illnesses, such as liver cirrhosis and alcohol-related cancers. We would also see almost 6,000 fewer hospital admissions per year, a reduction in alcohol-fuelled crime and workplace absences, while the total societal value of these reductions in health, crime and work place harms is estimated at €1.7 billion,” said Ms Costello.

“Significantly, the evidence for the benefits of MUP can already be seen in countries where it has been introduced. In the Canadian province of British Columbia a 10% increase in the MUP was associated with a 32% fall in wholly alcohol-related deaths, while it also led to reductions in alcohol-related hospital admissions and crime, particularly alcohol-related traffic offences and crimes against the person.”