Here’s looking at under-age drinking, hypocritically again

  • Post category:News

There have been fresh calls to change the way alcohol is sold in this country. Because pubs, off-licences and supermarkets all have their own agendas, the debate is riddled with hypocrisy, writes John Ruddy

In a country where so-called ‘binge’ drinking levels are the highest in Europe, the sale of alcohol is rarely far from the headlines. This was exemplified by a recent RTé Prime Time documentary, which outlined how minors were using home-delivery services from off-licences and supermarkets to buy alcohol, with no checks for ID or proof of age.

Given the apparent ease with which the under-age test subject could procure alcohol, the outrage that ensued was neither unwarranted nor exaggerated. Regardless of where you stand on the complex issue of alcohol sales, no one would argue that the practices shown in the documentary could be condoned in any way.

The danger now, however, is that such emotive footage will be used to force the government’s hand into imposing further restrictions on the off-trade, and particularly on mixed traders who sell both alcohol and groceries.

As it stands, mixed traders are obliged to follow a voluntary code of practice, which restricts the sale of alcohol to one area of the shop, prohibits any sales after 10pm and prevents overt promotion of alcohol products either in other areas of the shop or in window displays.

This was introduced in 2009, and while anecdotal evidence suggests that compliance is not as high as official audits would indicate, it would not be incorrect to state that the bulk of the Irish off-trade is fully compliant (or close to it) with the code.

Those who vilify the supermarkets as the root of all alcohol-related evil – namely publicans and specialist off-licensees – claim that this is not enough, however.

They point not only to breaches of the code, but also to the practice of discounted bulk sales (such as cheap deals on boxes of 20 bottles of beer) as ways in which large supermarket chains are encouraging “irresponsible” consumption of alcohol in Ireland.

It is true that cheap alcohol is very enticing to shoppers, particularly around key times such as Christmas, when consumers are known to choose their supermarket based on the price of a case of Heineken or a litre-bottle of Smirnoff.

This is backed up by the huge volumes of ‘lost’ sales in 2008 and 2009, when half of the Republic flocked to Newry and Banbridge to stock up on booze before Christmas.

However, regardless of how tempting cheap supermarket alcohol is to shoppers, it is disingenuous for either a publican or an off-licence operator to castigate supermarkets for selling bargain booze.
For example, an argument often used by the anti-supermarket lobby is that ‘immoral’ supermarkets sell beer for less than they sell water. How is this not also true of a pub, where two 250ml bottles of mineral water (or Coca-Cola) invariably cost more than a pint (568ml) of beer?

Furthermore, visit almost any dedicated off-licence around the country, and bulk deals on beer are immediately obvious. They may not be quite as cheap as Tesco or Dunnes, but the price gap in question is due to scale and purchasing power, not morals.
Then there is the issue of access. Independent off-licence group NOffLA, for example, argues that its members train staff in responsible retailing practices, whereas large supermarkets do not. Does this mean, then, that an independent off-licence would refuse to sell a bottle of spirits to an 18 year-old for fear that they might get drunk?

Or, in the case of organisations like the VFI, does it mean that the thousands of drunk young people who spill onto streets from pubs and nightclubs every weekend have been served a “responsible” amount of alcohol, in a “controlled”setting?

Regardless of the hypocrisy of these arguments, reports such as that on Prime Time should be seen as a wake-up call for the take-home drinks sector.

Restrictions on phone or online sales do seem inevitable, for example, and it is quite possible that government will now consider implementing a ban on the sale of alcohol except where both the purchaser and the vendor are present at the moment when the goods change hands.

Government will also be influenced by what happens in Britain, where local authorities in Manchester are proposing the introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol.   This 50p per unit threshold would mean that a bottle of wine could not be sold for less than  £4.50 (€5.50), or that a bottle of spirits could not cost less than  £14 (€17).

In theory, this would make alcohol less accessible to young people. However, in Ireland it could be argued that it would simply send more shoppers back to the North to stock up.

It is also worth considering that minimum pricing (regardless of whether it is well-intentioned or not), merely acts as a mechanism artificially to close the gap between the on-trade (pubs etc) and the off-trade. In this context, would it not be protectionist in favour of a sector that has no track record of being any more responsible or vigilant than supermarkets or off-licences?

There are many options on the table, however. The CSNA, which represents newsagents and convenience stores, is in favour of a ‘credits’ scheme, where alcohol purchases would be linked to a mandatory age card for those between 18 and 25.

With a quota of ‘credits’ on each card, this would not only reduce the likelihood of excess consumption, but would also prevent an 18-year-old from acting as the go-between for his under-age friends.
While initiatives such as these may seem draconian, the concept of staggered restrictions on the sale of alcohol is nothing new. In Sweden, for example, weak beer is sold without restrictions, but drinks with more than 3.5% alcohol are available only through the on-trade or in state-run liquor shops.

A similar situation applies in Norway, where spirits can be bought only by those over the age of 20.
Regardless of what, if anything, the government decides to do, there is a fine line between a nanny-state scenario, where the sale and consumption of alcohol becomes demonised, and the current situation, where under-age drinking is seen by many as an accepted part of Irish culture.

The bottom line, however, is that everyone has an agenda. If Dermot Ahern does plan to shake up the sector once more, acknowledging this will be a good first step.


Source: The Sunday Tribune, 29/08/10
Journalist: John Ruddy, editor of Checkout magazine