Policy flip flops and decisions that lack evidence have consequences – especially when it comes to alcohol

  • Post category:Blog

The Government is preparing to publish the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2024, which includes proposals to increase alcohol availability by extending licencing hours of all bars/restaurants from 11.30pm to 12.30am, facilitating late-night opening of bars to 2.30am, extending nightclub hours to 6am, and introducing a new cultural amenity license, all in the guise of enhancing the night-time economy.

What harm can a few extra trading hours do, some might say?

In fact, the international evidence is very clear: Such measures will lead to greater alcohol use and an increase in alcohol harms. A one-hour extension of trading hours has been shown to be associated with a 16% increase in alcohol-related crime, a 30% increase in road collisions in rural areas, and a 34% increase in alcohol-related injuries.

Despite this knowledge, it has become clear from all the enquiries that have been made over many months to the Department of Justice, and indeed the Department of Health, that there is no public health input or remit with this bill. 

How can that be possible when we know the costs of alcohol to this country? 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has noted that alcohol harm amounts to around 2.5% of GDP in high-income countries. For Ireland, that would equate to approximately €12bn annually. 

So, what is the human cost? 

1,500 people in hospital tonight from alcohol. Four deaths every day. 200,000 children experiencing the chaos of alcohol harm in the home, and a million adults living with that traumatic legacy to name just a few.


Facts and evidence 

In recent years, thanks to measures introduced under the Public Health Alcohol Act (PHAA), there are green shoots of change around Ireland’s longstanding problematic relationship with alcohol.

This legislation, which is still ferociously resisted by vested interests, is based on the well-evidenced “best buys” of controls on price, marketing, and availability to reduce alcohol harm. Consumption has dropped by over 7% since its passage in 2018, though hovering above a modest Government target of 9.1 litres per capita. For context, this is still a lot of alcohol. In 2022, on average, our alcohol use per drinker was 12 bottles of gin/vodka plus 227 cans of beer, 39 bottles of wine, and 36 cans of cider.

Heavy episodic drinking is also a characteristic of the national drinking pattern for which we rank highly in global statistics.

This bill, though, is a threat to this progress by attacking one of those “best buys”. Proponents of the bill use loose language that young people are drinking less, that Ireland needs to catch up to Europe and have a late-night “culture”.

While these platitudes sound convincing — context matters.

In Ireland, if everyone was drinking at current HSE low-risk guideline levels, alcohol consumption would be almost 40% lower. Heavy episodic drinking is also a characteristic of the national drinking pattern for which we rank highly in global statistics. Half of those who use alcohol are hazardous drinkers, and 37% of 15- to 24-year-olds who drink have an alcohol use disorder.

If we really want to be like our European neighbours, why not choose Norway over Germany — a country ranked even higher than Ireland for its binge drinking, consuming a quarter more alcohol than Ireland and losing 74,000 lives annually to alcohol. Heartbreak that is perhaps not considered while on a weekend break in Berlin. 

In contrast, Norway drinks 40% less than us thanks to its stronger controls on price, marketing, and availability. While not perfect, it has one of the lowest levels of alcohol-related mortality in Europe. In any case, our legislators are here to devise laws for our situation.


Vested interests 

Who exactly is seeking this increase? We know it certainly isn’t health professionals or people working with children. As highlighted in today’s Irish Examiner, the chair of the Road Safety Authority (RSA) has made a strong intervention with Government — highlighting serious concerns and calling for a Health Impact Assessment of the proposals. 

An Garda Síochána raised concerns it would increase demand on their resources and not resolve the problem of crowds spilling onto streets at the same time, merely shifting this to later in the night. Polling data suggests less than half the population are in favour, and 67% are concerned about impacts on public services.

We only need to look to our nearest neighbours in England and Wales to see how they fared when they increased opening hours under the Licensing Act of 2003.

 “There is no evidence of a relaxed continental drinking culture developing, or that the act has led to increased diversity within the night time economy, two key aims, ”Jon Foster, previously a senior research and policy officer at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, wrote in The Guardian.


Flip flop policy 

The bill is an act of vandalism to our nation’s health and should be reconsidered. If Government accedes to industry demands, then at the very least there must be some basic safeguards such as a sunset clause, a full review process with a commitment to collect and monitor real time data, along with the necessary resources.

Policy flip flops and decisions that lack evidence have consequences. When it comes to alcohol we must always remember: When you strip away the marketing, the money, the ever-present whispers in our ear that alcohol is our culture, a part of us and everything we hold dear — what is it really? A drug, highly profitable and dangerous. All the marketing spin in the world can’t hide that cold hard fact.

Perhaps what is needed is a radical rethink of our night-time economy and an understanding that the vibrancy we all want is not linked to the availability of alcohol, despite the myths and misinformation perpetuated by global vested interests.

If we want the cafe culture that politicians often talk about, let’s build cafes. Let’s not pretend that we are going to get it with this forthcoming bill.



This Op Ed was first published in the Irish Examiner.