Ireland is pushing ahead with new laws to create a minimum price for alcohol.
Despite a warning from Europe’s justice chiefs that governments must prove the move is a better option than increasing tax on drink, draft legislation on the reform is to be published in Dublin in the coming weeks.
Health Minister, Leo Varadkar, said he was encouraged by the initial ruling from Luxembourg which found that the favoured crackdown on cheap alcohol may not break EU law.
“I am encouraged by the opinion of the Advocate General which indicates that minimum unit pricing may be compatible with EU law if it can be shown to be more effective than other alternative measures,” he said.
“Therefore, I will be asking my officials to study his opinion and its implications as we wait for the final judgment of the court which is expected towards the end of the year.”
Ahead of that, draft laws on minimum unit pricing in Ireland are to be included in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill along with health labelling on drinks, restrictions on the advertising, marketing and promotion of alcohol and regulation of sports sponsorship.
In his ruling, European Court of Justice advocate general Yves Bot said certain conditions would have to be met if a government was to enforce a floor price for alcohol.
His ruling stated that it must be showed “that the measure chosen has additional advantages or fewer disadvantages than the alternative measure (taxation)”.
The Department of Health states that the cost of drink is directly linked to consumption levels and alcohol related harms.
A University of Sheffield study for the department looked at the long term health risks from alcohol, including liver cirrhosis and cancers, and found that a €1 minimum price for a standard drink would reduce drink related deaths by 197 a year over 20 years.
It also estimated there would 6,000 fewer hospital admissions a year and with better health, less crime and workplace injuries Irish society would be €1.7bn better off.
Suzanne Costello, chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland, which is campaigning for the minimum price, said the drinks industry has delayed the move for three years.
“In our view there is also no reason the Irish Government cannot also proceed with its plans to introduce minimum unit pricing, which can have a major impact in terms of reducing alcohol harm in Ireland, where three people die every day due to alcohol,” she said.
Alcohol Action Ireland said creating a floor price is preferable to taxation as it can effectively target the heaviest drinkers in society, while having little or no impact on low risk drinkers.
The group said alcoholics often prefer the cheapest, strongest drinks as they try to get as much drink for as little money as possible, while 18-24-year-olds in Ireland are now considered most at risk from cheap booze as they have the least disposable income but the highest rates of binge and dependent drinking.
Ms Costello added: “By setting a floor price for alcohol that cannot be undercut, minimum unit pricing is therefore a more targeted measure than increasing excise duty, which applies to all alcohol products and consumers equally, while, unlike excise duty, it cannot be simply absorbed by large multiple retailers who can 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.”
The drinks industry in Ireland said it was against cheap alcohol and wanted an end to below-cost selling.
“We are wholly against the sale of cheap alcohol, and our members want to work with government to find a solution that will effectively address its sale in this country. We believe that a ban on the below-cost selling of alcohol is that solution to addressing the sale of cheap alcohol,” the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland said in a statement.
Dublin’s 600 plus publicans, who are campaigning for a below-cost selling ban to target supermarkets, said they were extremely disappointed with the EU court ruling.
“If high taxes were the solution to alcohol abuse, the problem would have been solved a long time ago in this country,” Donall O’Keeffe of the Licensed Vintners Association said.
Tom McCusker, Managing Director of C&C Gleeson, which makes the popular Bulmers and Magners cider, said the company has supported the minimum pricing idea since 2011.
“Minimum unit pricing would be a brave but very useful step in tackling this misuse of alcohol,” he said.