Minimum drinks price welcome

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From The Irish Times

A MINISTER of State rarely gets the chance to make a lasting impact and improve public health. Mary Harney succeeded by banning bituminous coal from Dublin. Róisín Shorthall could follow that example by setting a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, thereby reducing binge drinking. Powerful commercial interests have campaigned against her, warning of job losses and a nanny state. Later this week, however, she will bring proposals to Cabinet that could change Irish life.

All political parties accept there is a serious problem with alcohol abuse. But, apart from commissioning reports and hand-wringing when public events deteriorate into outbreaks of violent and destructive behaviour – as happened at a recent Phoenix Park concert – little has been done. Now, Coalition and Opposition parties have an opportunity to put public health and welfare before corporate and business profits.

Eight years ago, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was in a similar position when, against ferocious opposition from tobacco and pub interests, he introduced a ban on smoking in public places. On that occasion, opinion polls found there was strong support for the smoking ban and that most tobacco-users would like to escape their addiction. A recent survey found a sizable majority of the electorate now favours a minimum unit price for alcohol, as proposed by Government. However, a small majority do not favour the ending of sports sponsorship by drink companies. Those findings will provide limited reassurance for senior Ministers faced with unpopular, but necessary, decisions.

Setting a minimum price for a unit of alcohol will impact most heavily on supermarkets and on outlets that promote wine, spirits and beer as “lost leaders” in efforts to attract customers for other products. Similar legislation has been enacted by the Scottish parliament. To avoid a cross-Border stampede, agreement has been reached between Ms Shorthall and Northern Ireland Health Minister Edwin Poots to establish a minimum price per unit of alcohol by the end of this year.

An Oireachtas committee suggested some months ago that online purchases of alcohol should be banned and supermarket and garage sales phased out. The main proposals from the Government’s advisory group on addiction involves: minimum alcohol pricing; the introduction of a social responsibility levy on the drinks industry; a ban on outdoor advertising and the phasing out of sports sponsorship by 2016. Ms Shorthall and the Government may not legislate for all of these issues. That should become clearer later in the week. After years of half-baked measures, however, the most important thing is to set a minimum price; to properly police existing licensing laws and to engage in a vigorous public health campaign that de-glamorises drink. In addition, many adults and parents will have to change their ways and set a more acceptable example for impressionable children. That insulting and demeaning put-down – “the drunken Irish” – has undeniable roots in reality. We have a responsibility to change it.