By Ryan Khurana
The Public Health Alcohol Bill being debated in Ireland is one of the most draconian set of alcohol legislation in the EU. With the arbitrarily set aim of reducing yearly consumption to 9.1 litres of alcohol per person by 2020, the Bill would alter not only the makeup of Irish supermarkets, but drastically affect its consumer culture.
The Bill’s most contentious stipulations include a high minimum unit pricing on alcohol, restrictive regulations on the ability to advertise alcohol products, and the physical separation of alcohol products from everything else in mixed stores. These regulations would cost the economy dearly, and are unsupported by the evidence backing them up.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar spoke in favour of the legislation’s prescriptions while acting as Health Minister, “The costs [of drinking] are huge: from the damage to personal health and to society, absenteeism, the burden placed on the health services, public disorder and violence, traffic accidents and the associated mental health consequences.” The problem with this is that these are all consequences of alcoholism that can be dealt with without burdening responsible drinkers.
If someone causes public disorder or any of the other harms to others that are claimed, the full force of the law protects the right to prosecute them. Workplaces reserve the right to fire absentee employees. There are legal mechanisms by which to respond to those individuals who pose a harm to society, but these people represent only a fraction of the drinking population. When it comes to burden to the healthcare system it is important to remember that Ireland already has the second highest rate of alcohol tax in the EU, with alcohol taxes bringing in over €1.2 billion a year to the exchequer. Further raising the costs of alcohol would only burden consumers, harming their freedom to enjoy a drink without significant effort.
Alcohol consumption has been declining in Ireland for over a decade, with peak consumption in 2001. Since then Ireland is in the middle between Britain and France in yearly consumption, and falling further steadily. These positive findings have been vehemently contested by the main lobbying groups pushing for restrictive alcohol laws, Alcohol Action Ireland. The national charity dedicated to raising awareness about alcohol related harms, however, has its main funding coming from the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health, making it in effect, the government lobbying itself. This further distorts the accurate dissemination of information regarding alcohol.
Alcohol related issues are best addressed by other means, as is seen by the decline in consumption that has continued in Ireland. Any meagre benefits that could come out of such restrictive policies would have to be offset by the significant economic and cultural issues with these changes.
Retail Ireland estimates that the compliance costs for stores are estimated to be at least €70 million to renovate layouts to separate alcohol. This would put significant pressure on small businesses, many of whose main sources of revenue is the sale of alcohol. These compliance costs further drum up the reliance on larger chain stores as smaller one’s go out of business, raising the costs of all goods, not just alcohol. Raising general costs would be the wrong move as Ireland’s economy continues to grow. Burdening the wallets of consumers would be inadvisable.
Similarly, the prohibitions on advertising would hit some of Dublin’s biggest tourist attractions: breweries. The Guinness Storehouse has nearly 1.7 million visitors annually, bringing in lots of revenue for the Irish economy. Preventing them from advertising the drinking tours would cost Irish media dearly, an estimated €20 million in revenue. These costs have wider trickle on effects to the number of clients for businesses, and the long term survival of independent media outlets. With media consumption increasingly being online, adding barriers to revenue for local media would jeopardise their existence.
Cultural threats are just as significant as the economic. This Bill goes beyond simply raising the price of alcohol, but changes the means by which alcohol can be sold and viewed in society. Irish culture, however, has strong ties to alcohol. A study done by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and the Irish Higher Education Authority found that there are “complex deep-rooted cultural and historical factors that facilitate alcohol consumption” in Ireland. Measures such as these continue to erode the traditional social culture that recreational alcohol consumption fosters.
Most egregious is the paternalism at the heart of this measure. The Public Health Alcohol Bill presents such a wide sweep of restrictions in such a way as to reduce the choice of individuals in Ireland. By affecting the whole population, as opposed to a targeted response to issues of heavy drinking, the Bill in effect represents the belief that consumers in general are not responsible with alcohol.
Drinking responsibly, however, is the norm for the vast majority of people. Their consumer preferences should be respected.
Ryan Khurana is a Research Fellow at the Consumer Choice Center