Government must act now to ensure the proper separation of alcohol in retail outlets

  • Post category:Newsletter

THE STRENGTH of the government’s commitment to tackling alcohol-related harm in Ireland will become clearer with the imminent decision on the rules governing how retailers separate alcohol from other products.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter recently acknowledged in the Dail that the current voluntary code is simply not working. He said that the purchase of alcohol by young people must be “de-normalised” and that “we must end some of the commercial inducements in place to encourage people to purchase and, perhaps, drink more alcohol than is wise”.

However, he stopped short of committing to enacting an existing law compelling retailers to separate alcohol from its other products. This is despite the fact that this law (Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008) has been waiting to be commenced for four years, since then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern deferred its enactment to allow the alcohol industry implement the current, failed voluntary code of practice.

The code’s inherent weakness lies in large part due to four words that allow considerable room for manoeuvre that a law would not. It is the code’s position that:

  • “Alcohol products will, as far as possible, be displayed only in a part of the premises through which the customers do not have to pass in order to obtain access to beverages and other food products…”
  • “Alcohol products will be confined to that one part of the premises and will, as far as possible, be separated from other beverages and food products”

Passing Section 9 into law is one of the key recommendations contained in the Steering Group Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy, published earlier this year, as it’s believed it is crucial to helping bring an end to the present situation, where alcohol is being sold as if it is just another every day item a family’s shopping basket, like bread or milk.

The report says that members of the steering group are in favour of restricting the sale of alcohol to specialist off-licences only, but that enacting Section 9 would “in the short term be going some way towards addressing the easy availability of alcohol”.

However, despite this recommendation and the fact that the current voluntary code of practice is clearly not working to separate alcohol from other products, there are fears that Section 9 could remain gathering dust on the shelf in favour of another “beefed-up” code of practice.

While Section 9 would see those shops and supermarkets who don’t comply with the law liable for prosecution, the other code of practice (Section 17 of the Civil Law Provisions Act 2011) being considered by Minister Shatter would not. Section 17 could see a breach provide grounds for objecting, in court, to the renewal of a shop’s licence.

Minister Shatter explained that the reason for his dilemma was that smaller grocery stores would find it expensive to implement the structural separation of alcohol, pointing out that they would not be able to absorb the costs as easily as the large supermarkets.

Chairperson of the National Off Licence Association Evelyn Jones described this argument as a “red herring” and said the majority of outlets could afford the changes required. She also said an inspection system for the Section 17 code would be a “nightmare” to operate.

The alcohol industry has been given four years to make the existing voluntary code work. By Minister Shatter’s own admission, it has failed to improve the situation in shops and supermarkets throughout the country, while a law that could do just that has remained waiting to be enacted.

While this is being dealt with as a completely separate issue from the National Substance Misuse Strategy, it is still the first opportunity that a government minister (albeit Justice, not Health) will have to implement one of the key recommendations contained in the steering group’s report and demonstrate the government’s commitment to tackling alcohol-related harm in Ireland.