Cabinet will not discuss drink abuse plan today

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From The Irish Times

DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN, Political Correspondent

CONTROVERSIAL new proposals to curb alcohol abuse are not on the agenda for today’s Cabinet meeting, according to senior political sources.

The measures, including plans to restrict drinks advertising and sponsorship, may not now be considered by the Government until after the summer recess.

A number of Fine Gael Ministers, including Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, had expressed reservations about aspects of a plan on alcohol drawn up by Labour Minister of State for Health Róisín Shortall.

Minister for Health James Reilly had been expected to propose an action plan this morning. However this will not take place today, according to senior sources, and may not even take place next week at the last Cabinet meeting before the summer recess.

Asked if the item had been taken off the agenda for this morning’s meeting, one well-placed source said it was never on today’s agenda in the first place.

Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney expressed concern at reports that Ms Shortall’s proposals were “being compromised following vigorous lobbying by the drinks industry”.

There have been reports of differences between Ministers on aspects of the proposals, especially on abolishing sponsorship of sports and arts events by drinks companies over a number of years.

If the plan was approved in the next two weeks, it is believed legislation to curb alcohol abuse could be introduced shortly after the Dáil returned from recess.

Ms Shortall’s plan also seeks approval in principle for a minimum unit price on alcohol and a “responsibility levy” on drinks firms which would be used to fund campaigns highlighting the dangers of alcohol.

Ms Shortall said: “I would be very hopeful that we will have a Public Health (Alcohol) Bill by September.”

Minister for Agriculture and Food Simon Coveney said the plan was going to be “a very positive initiative” but he had “some concerns” about the proposals.

Speaking to reporters in Dublin yesterday, Ms Shortall played down any differences.

“There is a mood for taking serious action in relation to our alcohol problem and I hope that the Cabinet gives support to our plans,” she said.

Noting Mr Coveney had expressed broad agreement despite reservations, she said: “The broad agreement is the important thing. I think everybody in Cabinet recognises the fact that we have a serious problem with alcohol.”

Asked if the main stumbling block was ending the sponsorship of sports and music events by drinks firms, she said a proposal to end this practice by 2016 had been modified.

“We wanted to be very reasonable about this and we’ve extended out that period,” Ms Shortall said.

Earlier, Mr Coveney told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland: “Róisín Shortall has done a really good job in actually pulling together a whole series of recommendations.”

He added: “I have some reservations in relation to one or two of the areas that she’s proposing and we’ll have a discussion about that and I’m sure we’ll come to a compromise on it.”

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar has previously cautioned that the elimination of sponsorship should take place gradually to allow time for alternative sources of revenue to be found.

In a statement last night, Mr Keaveney said: “While the drinks industry and other vested interests have been actively lobbying against these measures, the voices of families and individuals whose lives have been damaged, or even in some cases destroyed, by alcohol abuse are not being heard, drowned out by the howling of those whose only interest are in profits without regard to social cost.”