Minimum unit pricing is a much more targeted, effective measure than excise duty

Alcohol Action Ireland has said the judgement delivered by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), issued this morning, states that minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol is not precluded by EU law if it is considered to be an appropriate and proportionate response for “the protection of human life and health”.

According to this judgement, the test as to whether MUP is legal or not is whether it is more effective than less restrictive tax measures, namely excise duty. The ECJ states that the final test for whether or not MUP meets this condition rests with the national courts. Following today’s judgement the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland will be proceeding with its plans to introduce this life-saving measure.

“From an Irish perspective, MUP is a much more targeted, effective measure than excise duty, which cannot address the key issue of the strongest, cheapest alcohol in the off-trade. MUP would therefore result in a greater reduction in alcohol harm, including deaths caused by harmful drinking,” said Conor Cullen, Head of Advocacy and Communications with Alcohol Action Ireland.

“By setting a floor price beneath which alcohol cannot be sold, MUP can make an immediate difference by saving lives amongst those who drink in a high-risk manner and it would also reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions, alcohol-related crime, and workplace absences due to alcohol, thereby reducing the huge health, social and economic burdens that alcohol harm places on Irish society.”

Mr Cullen said that MUP has a number of clear advantages over excise duty as a measure to reduce alcohol harm and improve public health.

“MUP is able to target the very cheapest off-trade alcohol relative to its strength because the price is determined by, and directly proportionate to, the amount of alcohol in the drink. However, unlike excise duty, it would not affect all alcohol for sale in Ireland, only the very cheapest products in the off-trade, and would have absolutely no impact on the price of alcohol sold in pubs, clubs or restaurants.

“An analysis of the impact of MUP in Ireland, carried out for the Department of Health, found that, irrespective of income levels, it would only have a very small impact on low-risk drinkers, with somewhat larger impacts experienced by increasing risk drinkers, and the most substantial effects being experienced by high risk drinkers.

“MUP is therefore a more targeted measure than increasing excise duty, which applies to all alcohol products and consumers equally, unlike excise duty at the moment. MUP cannot be simply absorbed be absorbed by large multiple retailers who then off-set it by increasing the prices of other goods, ensuring that deeply discounted alcohol remains a ’loss leader’, as well as a significant public health problem.”

Mr Cullen said it is also a bizarre situation that the alcohol industry has adopted a position that excise duty could “less restrictively” achieve a reduction in harmful drinking than MUP given that it campaigns relentlessly for cuts in excise duty every year and is fundamentally opposed to any public health measures that will reduce alcohol consumption, regardless of the huge burden that alcohol harm places on Irish society.

“It suits the alcohol industry to adopt a view of this judgement that taxation can achieve the same public health benefits as MUP. However, this is simply not the case and the fact is that the alcohol industry also relentlessly campaigns for cuts in excise duty every year, proving the direct relationship between price and consumption levels.

“Despite its reputation as one of ’the old reliables’ when Budget time comes around, increases in excise duty on alcohol are not common occurrences. During 19 of the last 27 Budgets in Ireland there has been either no change in excise duty or a decrease in rates and excise duty has failed to keep pace with disposable income and inflation.

“The reality of the situation with alcohol pricing is that if you are an 18-year-old in Ireland today, the excise duty on beer has increased just twice, and been cut once, during your lifetime, while cheap, strong alcohol continues to be sold at pocket-money prices in supermarkets, where cans of beer can cost less than bottles of water.”



Minimum Unit Pricing

It has been estimated that, with a €1 MUP per standard drink (10g of alcohol), alcohol-attributable deaths would be reduced by approximately 197 per year in Ireland after 20 years, by which time the full effects of the policy will be seen, due to the time-lag involved with many serious alcohol-related illnesses, such as liver cirrhosis and alcohol-related cancers. We would also see almost 6,000 fewer hospital admissions per year, a reduction in alcohol-fuelled crime and workplace absences, while the total societal value of these reductions in health, crime and work place harms is estimated at €1.7 billion.

Significantly, the evidence for the benefits of MUP can already be seen in countries where it has been introduced. In the Canadian province of British Columbia a 10% increase in the MUP was associated with a 32% fall in wholly alcohol-related deaths, while it also led to reductions in alcohol-related hospital admissions and crime, particularly alcohol-related traffic offences and crimes against the person.

The aim of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is reduce the level of alcohol consumption in Ireland to the OECD average of 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per capita, from our current level of 11 litres. Alcohol consumption increased in Ireland in 2014 and is on course to do so again in 2015.