Health bill on safe alcohol use has been diluted too much

Drink should not be placed alongside groceries or obviously be visible to children, yet the proposed in-shop barrier is merely the height of a boy of 7, and thus no deterrent, says Gary O’Donovan

Gary O’Donovan says NOffLA welcomed Simon Harris’s comments that the goal is to make alcohol less visible, but is confused how this can be reconciled with the plans for structural separation. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

AS MOST of us working within the drinks industry know, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is trickling through the halls of Leinster House. It is the first-ever piece of legislation to address the impact alcohol has on our collective public health.

This has been a long, drawn-out process — to quote Health Minister Simon Harris, “it took 700 days, from its initiation, to the time it passed the Seanad” — and we’re not there yet.

The bill will shortly leave the Dáil and head to the Health Committee, for further review and scrutiny.

As chair of the National Off-Licence Association (NOffLA), and the owner of eight off-licences in Cork, I am proud of our support of this legislation. It includes some important measures in addressing Ireland’s relationship with alcohol, such as minimum unit pricing and structural separation.

We are committed to the principles of the bill, as well as the Government’s and minister for health’s ambitions, most notably by reducing alcohol’s visibility, and by “de-normalising” it from normal grocery items.

Maybe this is why we are so disappointed with the dilution of one of the bill’s core sections, and, by extension, principles. There have been a number of amendments to the bill, meaning its impact on reducing the visibility of alcohol will be negligible. This is unacceptable within a health-promotion context, and will mean the continued exposure of children to alcohol.

From a retail perspective, NOffLA believes that the separation of alcohol from other products, in mixed-retailing outlets, is a fundamental step in reducing alcohol consumption, by removing the practice of calculated placement of alcohol beside groceries and the exposure of children under the age of 18 to alcohol.

Alcohol is a controlled substance, whose purchase should be a conscious decision, rather than an impulse while picking up milk, or filling up on petrol.

We welcomed recent comments by Mr Harris, in the Dáil, that the ultimate goal of section 22 was to make alcohol less visible, yet are now confused as to how government can reconcile this claim with the amendments it has accepted regarding structural separation.

As a result, NOffLA feels compelled to warn against the newly introduced option of a waist-high physical barrier, at 1.2m in height, which, distressingly, according to UK statistics, equates only to the average height of a seven-year-old boy.

What possible impact will this have on the de-normalising of alcohol, if an eight-year-old, or nine-year-old, not to mention 15 or 16-year-old, can see it?

We understand the need for compromise and industry consultation, in legislative drafting. In fact, we welcome it.

However, the solutions offered by the minister, and which are now contained in the bill, mean that unrestricted amounts of alcohol will be visible in large supermarkets to children from as young as eight. This goes against the very principle of the bill and must be amended.

Many of Northern Ireland’s supermarkets have physical barriers, and that jurisdiction has similarly high rates of alcohol-related harm.

So, a barrier of 1.2m will have little or no impact on the perception of alcohol as a dangerous substance, and will have no impact on reducing alcohol harm.

As such, as an association that promotes the responsible retailing of alcohol, we are confused by the rationale of a 1.2m-high barrier and concerned by its merits.

If the above amendment is to have any real impact, the minimum height of the physical barrier must be increased to at least 1.8m, the average height of a 17-year-old.

Furthermore, there is genuine concern about the unrestricted view children will have in smaller, mixed retail units, given that it will be permissible to have three storage units, each of 1m in width and 2.2m in height. This effectively means there can be three metres of alcohol on display, with no visibility requirements.

One would have to question the logic underpinning this unrestricted access, considering the prevalence of children and youths in smaller, mixed-retail settings, buying school lunches, accompanying parents who are filling-up on petrol, etc.

To have come this far, and prevailed against such strong opposition throughout the process, only to succumb at the final hurdle, seems short-sighted and disappointingly weak. We understand that compromise is necessary in politics, but when you are on the right side of implementing real and necessary reform, something that will change forever our relationship with alcohol, for the better, we would ask the minister to remain steadfast in his objective, and be true to the bill’s original principles.

Gary O’Donovan is chair of the National Off-Licence Association


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