Government after government, cheered on by myriad agencies advocating responsible drinking, seem committed to doing “the right thing” — in the public square at least. Nevertheless, proposals aimed at curbing alcohol consumption are invariably diluted when the all-powerful drinks lobby makes its views known and points to the €1bn it pays in excise duties each year.
Sanity or even common sense occasionally intervene in this circular debate but not as often as they might.
The latest skirmish has broken out between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance (IA) over proposals to restrict alcohol advertising and sales. One of the measures suggested but opposed by the IA is that alcohol be cordoned off in supermarkets or service stations. How this exclusion might restrict sales has yet to be explained in any convincing, grown-up way. Neither has it been explained how these measures might succeed where the imposition of the highest alcohol taxes in Europe has not. Alcohol prices in Ireland are among the very highest in the EU, figures published last year show that our alcohol prices were 75% above the EU average. Indeed, these prices may even be counterproductive as a weakened sterling and the ever-popular wine run to the Continent mean that some of the money spent abroad on drink destined for Ireland now supplements the French or British public purse rather than our own.
The control measures being prepared by Junior Health Minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy may be introduced despite the fact that alcohol consumption per capita has been falling since the turn of century. In a little more than a decade and a half our consumption has fallen by a quarter.
Despite this welcome trend, efforts to impose a minimum pricing through legislation are ongoing. A Scottish court decision last month, after the matter had been dealt with by the EU court, suggests that this half-cocked idea might become law here. The idea is half-cocked because, as the OECD points out, “the additional money spent by drinkers will go to alcohol manufacturers and retailers”. A measure designed to cut alcohol sales will boost the retailers’ and drink industry’s revenues. How ironic, how misguided.
It would be dishonest, and pointless, to suggest that this society, like so many others, does not have a problem with alcohol abuse. Alcoholism, or even regular heavy drinking, brings a litany of catastrophe into far too many individuals’ lives, into far too many families and businesses. A lot of the random violence scarring communities, most of the domestic violence threatening vulnerable people, especially children, a lot of the road deaths and serious traffic accident injuries, suicide too, can be traced to drinking unwisely.
It would be equally dishonest, and plain stupid too, to suggest that those who abuse alcohol in a dangerous way might be deterred by limited access or rising prices. Alcohol consumption has fallen because of cultural change not because of limiting legislation. That is how this war might be won.