Alcohol proposals are not about blame or punishment

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The Government’s announcement this week of new measures to reduce alcohol consumption is a watershed.

From The Irish Times

The health and social impacts of our patterns of alcohol use have been well documented. Numerous reports have been commissioned, medical research papers written and there has been regular reporting of terrible human suffering .

Problem alcohol use has been linked to liver failure, road deaths, family violence, suicide, homicide and very risky behaviour among our teenagers and young adults. Our hospitals’ emergency departments are struggling to cope with the added impact of drink-related problems.

Our social norms around alcohol are damaging us. One in 10 Irish drinkers is dependent on alcohol and over half of us drink at levels that are harmful or hazardous to our health and wellbeing.

  Public drunkenness

Visitors to our country are shocked and bemused at our high levels of tolerance of public drunkenness.So, why is this week’s announcement a watershed? Never has an Irish government legislated for alcohol as a public health issue.

The one success story in alcohol legislation in Ireland relates to drink driving, where legislation was followed by a reduction by half in road fatalities – a truly amazing impact.

What the current proposals aim to do is to broaden the range of measures to reduce our alcohol consumption. The aim is to reduce our per capita alcohol consumption to the European average. We are not talking prohibition here.

What has been flagged this week are elements of a solution. Three measures have been highlighted: minimum unit pricing; new labelling with information on facts such as calorie count, grams of pure alcohol and health harms; and some measures related to advertising, marketing and sponsorship.

Minimum unit pricing targets two vulnerable groups – alcohol-dependent people and young drinkers who purchase alcohol at “pocket money prices”. It is a proportionate measure as it only affects a small proportion of drinkers and will have no impact on pub prices.

The measures to inform consumers of what exactly they are drinking, if supplemented with matching clinical guidelines, will help drinkers make informed choices.


The acknowledgment that the proposals on advertising, marketing and sponsorship will have to be reviewed in three years suggests the Government is not convinced these new measures will suffice.Overall, these proposals are a very good start. They are not about blame or punishment. They are about Government doing what only politicians can do: legislating for the common good. Minister for Health Leo Varadkar and his team in the Department of Health deserve our support in steering these measures through to the statute book.

Joe Barry is professor of population health medicine at Trinity College