WHEN IT comes to the demon drink, Irish consumers have never had it so cheap. Whether this should be celebrated or curtailed will be at issue later this month when a national strategy on substance misuse is published after two years of wrangling.
In one corner will be health professionals, charities dealing with the consequences of Ireland’s problematic relationship with drink, and Government Ministers, particularly Minister of State with responsibility for Primary Care, Róisín Shortall. In the other will be the retail giants who use cheap booze to help coax shoppers through their doors and a multibillion-euro drinks industry that advocates responsible drinking while profiting handsomely from the more irresponsible kind.
Shortall believes Irish drinkers “lost the run of themselves” during the boom. Drinking of alcohol is costing more than €3.5 billion a year once chronic diseases, injury and other societal ills are taken into account, she says.
A briefing note prepared for Minister for Health Dr James Reilly last year said adults drink “in a more dangerous way than nearly any other country”, while Irish children “drink from a younger age and are drinking more than ever before”. It described alcohol as “a contributory factor in half of all suicides and accounts for up to 10 per cent of bed days in hospitals, while alcohol-related road accidents cost an estimated €530 million in 2007”.
In an interview with The Irish Times , Shortall says the details of the overhaul of public health legislation will emerge at the end of this month when the National Substance Misuse Strategy steering group publishes its report. She also indicates that controls on pricing and advertising and more strict enforcement of existing laws are inevitable.
The steering group was set up at the end of 2009 to establish a new approach for dealing with substance misuse. Almost immediately, a row broke out. The group included representatives from the drinks industry, who objected to their addictive but legal drug being ranked alongside addictive but illegal drugs. Other members of the group objected to vested interests being part of their cohort and playing a role in developing policy.
This week, several committee members privately accused the industry of delaying the report’s publication by refusing to sign off on key elements. “To say they spent the two years raising objections and dragging their heels would be putting it mildly,” one source says.
ACCORDING TO ITS website, the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland has “excellent access to Government Ministers and senior public officials”. It stoutly rejects allegations it has slowed the process and says it had been “professional and constructive” throughout.
“We were asked to participate, and we have a right to a voice,” its spokeswoman Kathryn D’Arcy says. She accepts there were some recommendations in the report the group opposed – most notably concerning pricing and advertising – “but to say we obstructed the group is terribly unfair”.
The Government is also preparing a more ambitious range of measures in a Public Health Act to be drawn up this summer, but so far pricing has dominated the headlines. Among the proposals will be rules governing the lowest price at which alcohol can be sold. This minimum cost will depend on the number of units of alcohol a container holds – and if the level is set at 50 cent per unit, then the lowest price for a bottle of wine containing eight units will be €4.