Health Minister defends alcohol bill changes

The Government did not cave in to the powerful drinks lobby in changes to the alcohol health bill, Health Minister Simon Harris says.

Mr Harris defended the changes, which exempts small local shops from the more draconian elements of the bill regarding separation of alcohol, saying the alterations are “common sense”.

Mr Harris, in an interview with the Irish Examiner, said he is satisfied with the final makeup of the bill.

“I said alcohol must be less visible to children and it will be. But this will be more practical for small shops. This was never about small shops having to spend a fortune to change their shops. I always felt certain compromises would need to be made to get the bill passed. The Taoiseach when he appointed me told me to get this passed and I feel the compromise was proportionate,” he said.

He rejected accusations that he has rolled over to the drinks industry: “The fact I was not on their Christmas card list is probably a good thing. I don’t see how that holds up that I have rolled over.”

“It was 700 days from its initiation to the time it passed the Seanad. We were somewhat going around in circles and some in the drinks industry thought it would never leave the Seanad. We have made a number of common sense changes which don’t alter the fundamental principle of what I wanted the bill to do,” Mr Harris said.

Mr Harris said under this bill minimum unit pricing will come into law, advertising restrictions will be introduced, and new labels with health warnings will come in.

“Even when Micheál Martin brought in the smoking ban he had to compromise on the legislation. It has to go through the Dáil and hopefully we can get it done quickly,” Mr Harris said.

Mr Harris said he was the subject of intense lobbying from within his own party and from members of the Opposition: “In fairness to them, they were transparent about it, they were true to their word. They said ‘we don’t have a problem about alcohol being less visible but is there a more practical way to solve it’.”

“They had very strong views based on what they heard from local retailers in their constituencies,” Mr Harris said.

A number of senators criticised of the Bill. Fine Gael senator Paudie Coffey said the bill should not “make pariahs out of responsible shopkeepers who are trying to manage their businesses”.

Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard also said that he was concerned that the legislation would threaten the existence of small retailers.

Fianna Fáil senator Keith Swanick said the legislation would require small shops to put in place new shelving units, fire exits and work barriers.

However, Independent Senator Frances Black urged the minister not to weaken on this part of the legislation.

She said that this part of the legislation was about the woman who walks into the shop “and just getting a bottle of wine, like as if it was a pint of milk and that bottle of wine could cause that woman breast cancer”.


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