Fine Gael senators have warned that the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing will see job losses and floods of shoppers crossing the border if changes are not enacted in the North at the same time.
Radical legislation to reduce drink advertising, to ban below-cost sales, and to segregate the sale of alcohol products in shops was reintroduced in the Seanad yesterday.
James Reilly, the former health minister, said alcohol is to blame for suicides, absenteeism in workplaces, rape, road traffic accidents, and unwanted pregnancies.
Health Minister Simon Harris said the Government doesn’t want to operate a “nanny state” but that buying alcohol is not the same as buying a loaf of bread or a pint of milk in a shop and therefore needs to be treated differently.
The Government is amending the Public Health Alcohol Bill so that small shops can still show drink products without covering them up, a chief concern among mainly Government senators.
Mr Harris told the Seanad that with current cheap alcohol prices, a woman could reach her weekly recommended intake of drink for €4.90 while a man could hit his for €7.65.
He said he would engage with the industry, politicians, and health professionals over the legislation.
Senator David Norris (Ind) said he hoped politicians would have the guts to stand up to the drinks lobby.
Senator Tim Lombard (FG) raised concerns about minimum pricing for drink here not being introduced at the same time as the North. Instead, he suggested a groceries order could act as an interim measure and put a floor on prices. Timing was the issue, warned the Cork senator.
Nonetheless, fellow Fine Gael senator James Reilly called for leadership on the legislation. He said the abuse of alcohol in society had contributed to many problems, including suicides and rapes.
Minimum pricing is crucial, he warned.“There is a time to follow and a time to lead — let us lead on this.”
Fine Gael senators Joe O’Reilly, Michelle Mulherin, and Kieran O’Donnell and Independent senator Gerard Craughwell were among those who warned about the consequences of introducing the minimum pricing at a different time to the North.
Mr Harris said there was no specific period when the minimum pricing would begin, but added that the Government wants the legislation passed so when the North’s institutions are up and running, the unit cost for alcohol system can be introduced at a later stage.
Many senators agreed the minimum pricing and advertisement restrictions near schools are needed to protect children. Members recounted stories of young people buying slabs of beer or naggins of spirits for very cheap prices in stores.
Former tánaiste Michael McDowell recounted how the cost of alcohol had been a restraint in his college days. “When the money ran out, that was it,” he told colleagues in the Seanad.
Mr Harris said international evidence showed that increasing the cost of alcohol reduced the harm in society.
Robbie Gallagher (FF) said the border is 4km from his home and changes here, not timed with the North, would see job losses. “Whatever we do in southern Ireland, we have to make sure similar arrangements are brought in north of the border,” he said.
Mr O’Reilly warned that a small number of job losses would be replicated in towns and corner shops.
The bill was expected to pass committee stage in the Seanad last night before returning for report stage in the coming days.
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