independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Growing concern about the volumes of alcohol being brought into Irish homes.

Since the outset of the COVID-19 lockdown in mid-March, we have been monitoring all available public trade data , mainly from Nielsen and Kantar; two significant trends emerging are both noteworthy and worrying.

Firstly, over the Easter period (5-19 April) we know there was a 44% increase in off-trade sales when compared with the previous Easter of 2019. In the 10 week period of the lockdown, trade data indicates a 40% rise in off-trade alcohol sales.

Initially one may have found some reason in the notion that people’s purchases of alcohol, having initially been driven by the closure of the pubs (28th March), would begin to level off and re-adjust to a new normal. But no. The latest available Kantar data, as of 17th May, now indicates even greater volumes, with sales showing a 93% increase, over the previous 4 weeks.

Secondly, in normal times, +65% of all alcohol consumed is drank at home, or at someone else’s home. As these levels of sales from the off-trade increase, it is reasonable to conclude that, in the period of question, Ireland’s drinkers have shifted all its consumption, and possibly some more, to the home. The question remains – is this temporary blip as Ireland yet again resorts to a bottle for its solace, or are we witnessing a dramatic shift in people’s lifestyles to be dominated by even greater harmful binge drinking at home?

Psychologists suggest that habits can be formed within 21 days and lifestyles changed permanently after 90 – at the end of May we had experienced 80 days of restrictions, and many temporary behaviours may well have settled into permanent habits.

Perhaps central to the increased levels of sales is that a new cohort of drinker has discovered, or perhaps rediscovered that alcohol, widely available in our shops, convenience stores and off-licences, is exceptionally affordable. For the four categories of alcohol produce – beer, spirits, wine and cider – a 1:4 comfortable volume ratio can be applied to the pub drinkers new found purchasing power.

In addition to these scenarios, the alcohol industry, desperate to shift volume, have also recklessly pursued a price-war. This has seen many premium products, normally sold at or above a recommended retail price, now being heavily discounted, and often at -25% beneath what a minimum price would ensure, while less known brands are discounted by over 50%.

Minimum unit pricing (MUP) was enacted in the 2018, Public Health (Alcohol) Act, yet over 600 days on, Ireland still has yet to commence MUP. If commenced it would ensure none of the reckless trading currently evident would or could take place. It would ensure a reduction in consumption, particularly amongst hazardous drinkers, and more widely, induce smaller reductions across the whole of drinking population.

This modest control of the alcohol price must be implemented now as a matter of some urgency. In the medium term will reduce acute alcohol episodes and improve the long term health outcomes for those at greatest risk. However, in the short-term society will have to deal with the immediate impact, particularly on children who day-to-day have to cope with parental alcohol misuse, of such excessive levels of alcohol pouring into Irish homes.