Calling time on drink prices

From The Irish Catholic

“The age of first drinking has dropped to 14. Irish teenagers drink as often as their European counterparts but they drink a lot more, and pretty much top the European levels for drink bingeing, ” says Fiona Ryan, director of Alcohol Action Ireland.

The idea of children as young as 14 binge drinking is frightening, but at the same time it is not really a surprise  – in fact we see it in the media every year when the Junior Cert results are released. We know we have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in Ireland and children are just emulating the adult example.

Alcohol-related harm costs this country an estimated  €3.7 billion a year –  €1.2 billion a year being spent on alcohol-related health costs and  €1.19 billion being spent on alcohol-related crime costs.

Last week, Alcohol Action hosted a conference in Dublin called  ‘Time Please …for Change ’ during which 27 national charities, community and medical representative organisations came together to call on the Government to introduce legislation to require minimum pricing for alcohol.


The coalition includes organisations who deal with the realities of alcohol-related harm in communities, families, the health system and on the streets such as The Irish Medical Organisation, The ISPCC, The Irish Heart Foundation, The National Youth Council of Ireland, The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, Barnardos, St Vincent de Paul, Mental Health Ireland, Foroige, Women ’s Aid and The Alzheimer Society of Ireland.

 “The price of alcohol is a very real concern, ” said Fiona Ryan.  “Young people are very aware of price-based promotions and parents are deeply concerned about pricing and other ways of promoting alcohol. The Health Research Board who commissioned research on attitudes to alcohol pricing and other aspects of alcohol marketing found that three out of four people supported a 9pm watershed for alcohol ads while 70 per cent supported banning alcohol advertising on social media.

 “Alcohol marketing which includes pricing, advertising, sponsorship and promotion such as positioning does influence young people ’s attitudes to alcohol and their behaviour. As adults there is a danger that we look back nostalgically on our own teenage experiences, forgetting that children are drinking earlier than previously. ”


 “Alcohol is more widely available and more affordable than in previous generations  – a teenager can get absolutely drunk for less than  €10  – a woman can reach her maximum low risk weekly limit for  €7, less than one hour worked on minimum wage. Coupled with that affordability is the widespread availability and an explosion of alcohol retailing  – 161pc increase during the boom years alone. ”

Alcohol Action Ireland says that minimum pricing should have little impact on those who drink within low-risk weekly limits, as it increases the price of the cheapest drink, which tends to be purchased by heavy drinkers and young drinkers.

 “There is no room for compromise on this, ” says Fiona Ryan.  “Alcohol is a serious risk to children and young adult ’s health. ”

A Canadian study has found a 10pc increase in the minimum price of alcohol was linked to nearly an 8.5pc decrease in alcohol consumption. High-strength beer, wine and cocktails were most affected by the price changes, with high-strength beer consumption falling by 22pc after the minimum pricing increase.

The author of the study, Professor Tim Stockwell, has acknowledged that an increase in the minimum price of alcohol would hit poorer people harder, but his study showed it changed the behaviour of most drinkers.

 ‘ ’The heavy drinkers go for cheap stuff anyway but this was switching everybody to go for low alcohol content drinks  … most people have a limit on their incomes and so it does affect most people, ’ ’ he said.

Professor Stockwell was responsible for implementing compulsory labelling on the number of standard drinks in alcohol in Australia, and this was fought by the drinks industry with claims that it violated international laws. He said he would expect any move to introduce minimum pricing was likely to be unpopular and subject to intense industry lobbying.

This has been seen in Scotland where government plan s to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol has been blocked by the Scotch Whisky Association, which claims it is incompatible with European law.

Free trade rules

Five EU countries, all of which are significant wine producers, have now raised concerns that the proposal may infringe free trade rules and the EU Commission has issued a statement saying there is a  “problem with the compatibility of minimum pricing plans under community law ”.

However, a spokesman from the Home Office says the government is still committed to the introduction of a minimum unit price.  “The proposal has the backing of the Royal College of Physicians and the Association of Chief Police Officers and could mean 50,000 fewer crimes and around 900 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year by the end of the decade. ”


Scotland has similar drinking habits to Ireland, and Dr Evelyn Gillan, CEO of Alcohol Focus Scotland, says that although heavy drinking has almost been accepted as part of their culture that does not mean attitudes cannot be changed.

 “If you go back to between 1930 and 1960 our alcohol consumption was one of the lowest in Western Europe. We didn ’t have the levels of harm caused by alcohol because we had a lot of regulation in the system then. Price, availability  – these are all part of culture because what you do is normalise excessive drinking and easy availability. So I think you have to be careful not to separate culture from our physical social environment and our legislative environment. ”


In Ireland, the Sale of Alcohol Bill was due to go before the Dáil earlier this year, but was postponed. Former Minister of State for Health, Róisín Shortall, had championed radical measures to address alcohol abuse, including minimum pricing, and there was some concern amongst campaigners that her resignation would have a detrimental effect on the future of the Government ’s plan to tackle alcohol abuse.

Addressing the Alcohol Action conference her successor Minister Alex White, said the strategy would be brought to Cabinet  “within weeks . . . absolutely before Christmas ”.

By the end of this month, a new wave of alcohol promotions will be launched in supermarkets offering cheap alcohol in the run up to Christmas  – will it be the last year that we see this in Ireland?