Polluter pays is a great idea – now let’s start charging the alcohol industry

  • Post category:Blog

News that cigarette manufacturers are to be charged for the cost of cleaning up cigarette butt litter made the headlines in recent weeks and was universally welcomed as the right thing to do.

This idea of polluter pays is a very sensible one and a concept the government, through the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, is embracing.

But why stop at cigarettes?

The latest annual National Litter Pollution Monitoring System report shows that alcohol litter is the second largest component of national litter pollution recorded.

While just last week, the final litter survey of 2022, by business group Irish Business Against Litter, highlighted the prevalence of plastic bottles and cans that litter our public spaces.

Indeed, the government is bringing forth a measure to address this – the forthcoming Deposit Return Scheme.

The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) encourages people to recycle drink containers by charging a small deposit for the plastic bottle or can that it comes in. Customers get this money back when they return the container to a retailer or other collection point to be recycled.

Again, this is a welcome initiative. But unlike with cigarettes, the alcohol industry won’t have to pay directly. That said, they will very likely incur administrative costs associated with the scheme.

Interestingly, alcohol producers in Scotland have actively tried to halt a similar measure there, citing issues around “burdensome and costly regulation”.

Greenwashing in the alcohol industry is prevalent with alcohol producers keen to portray themselves as sustainable ‘green’ companies. Opposition to this measure by drinks producers in Scotland demonstrates that if sustainability affects their bottom line, then it simply doesn’t wash.

As well as being unsightly, alcohol litter and indeed the pervasive nature of alcohol in our lived environments can make children feel unsafe.

In Scotland, a research project hearing the voices of children in relation to the alcohol in their environments made this point with children saying things like:

“Most of the children here don’t like being around alcohol.” “Pubs are open when I walk to school. I feel scared because I walk past drunk people when they’re out in the morning drinking.” “Children would feel safer if they didn’t see [people drinking alcohol] on the street.” “It would be better at festivals for children. Bottles and cans on the grass are dangerous.”

Similarly, the HRB has noted that: “Disorderly conduct is often concentrated in areas where alcohol is sold for consumption on-trade, for example, in or near bars, pubs, clubs, and restaurants. Noise, litter, and vandalism as a result of the congregation of people when late-night venues close can constitute a public nuisance and safety risk and can create a sense of unease.”

All of this begs the question: Should alcohol producers now pay a responsibility levy to offset the harm their mass marketed products cause? AAI has calculated that a scheme of up to a 2% levy could yield around €100 million to the Exchequer. This is a drop in the ocean of the economic cost of cleaning up the harms of alcohol use in Ireland – at least €3.7 billion annually – but it would act as a statement of intent.

The lack of political will to place a levy on alcohol producers is increasingly at odds with growing public sentiment and awareness about these issues.

Just like all global industries that cause harm – tobacco, fossil fuels, weapons, the alcohol industry uses well-rehearsed tactics to undermine effective public health policymaking.

This is now plainly obvious, yet we continue to allow an industry that seeks to maximize profits at all costs, pay lip service – and nothing else – to public health.

As with tobacco, the core of the alcohol industry approach is to counter national alcohol policies and extoll an anodyne PR message to merely ‘drink responsibly’ while using saturation levels of sophisticated marketing to encourage high levels of alcohol use with all its attendant harms to the individual and to others.

For years, smoking has been the bogeyman in the room, but comprehensive research from around the world shows that the bigger threat to our public health in general is actually alcohol – not least because people do not realise the damage it does because of industry’s successful attempts to obscure reality.

In this context, while getting alcohol companies to pay for litter and waste, would be something, it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of really getting to grips with an industry largely unfettered by government regulation. Ireland passed groundbreaking legislation in 2018 to try to curb industry’s marketing and misinformation, but at every turn it has been met with opposition and delay. Who does that benefit? Shareholders and businesses. No-one else.