Public Health Alcohol Bill 2016 – My Speech
Whilst I strongly welcome the Public Health Alcohol Bill – I feel a more fundamental shift needs to occur when it comes to tackling the alarming levels of alcohol consumption in Ireland.
Alcohol consumption has reached alarming levels. When you exclude 20% of the adult population who abstain from alcohol completely, consumption figures for 2015 are 46 bottles of vodka, 130 bottles of wine, or 498 pints of beer per person annually.
Alcohol consumption in Ireland almost trebled since 1960. Although our alcohol consumption has declined by 23%, from a peak of 14.3 litres of pure alcohol per capita in 2001, to 11 litres in 2015 – this decline has not been consistent. With changing levels of excise duty and affordability having a direct and immediate impact on population consumption patterns, and we remain almost two litres per capita above the Healthy Ireland and Public Health (Alcohol) Bill target of 9.1 litres.
There is growing evidence that documents the impact of alcohol related harm not just on the individual drinker and their family, but on wider society e.g. social disorder, vandalism, violence and other crime, reduced community amenity, absenteeism and reduced work performance. The estimated cost of excessive alcohol consumption is €3.7 billion a year due to health, crime/public order and other costs.
As such I very much appreciate opportunity to debate this crucial Bill:
The main aspects of this bill are:
• Minimum Unit Pricing
• Structural Separation
Firstly, I would like to discuss Section 20: Structure and Separation:
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill contains a provision for the separation of alcohol products in mixed retail outlets, such as supermarkets and convenience stores, which will mean that they will no longer be displayed like ‘every day’ or ‘ordinary’ products, such as bread or milk.
Restricting the physical availability of alcohol is a critical component of any evidence-based approach to reducing consumption and consequently alcohol harm. Greater ease in obtaining alcohol is associated with greater amounts being consumed.
Alcohol is not an ordinary consumer product and this is recognised by the State by the fact it needs a license to be sold and is subject to specific excise duty. However, despite the fact that it is a licensed product and a drug – one that causes a great burden of harm in society – when it comes to selling alcohol, it is for all intents and purposes treated like a regular grocery.
As well as helping to drive sales, the fact that alcohol is displayed and sold in the same manner as food and other everyday goods, has the effect of categorising alcohol as an ordinary commodity and reinforcing the perception that it is just another benign consumer good in the family shopping basket.
Alcohol is sold to consumers by utilising what is termed the “marketing mix”: product, price, place and promotion. The number of places where people can buy alcohol has increased dramatically in the past 20 years and it is now available from almost every supermarket, convenience store and petrol station in Ireland.
Between 1998 and 2013, the number of pub licences in Ireland declined by 19.1% and during the same period the combined number of wine and spirit off-licences increased by 377%. In 2013 there was one licence for every 197 adults in Ireland.
The Intoxicating Liquor Act, 2000, abolished the restriction on the geographical movement of licences across the country. Prior to this Act, pub licences could only be transferred through a process that involved extinguishing one or more licences and issuing another licence for the new premises.
The rules differed for rural and urban premises; a new rural licence required extinguishing two existing rural licences, while obtaining a new licence for a previously unlicensed premises in an urban area required one to extinguish a licence in the immediate vicinity of the proposed new licensed premises.
The 2000 Act allowed for the transfer of licences across the country, which resulted in many rural pub licences being sold to supermarket and petrol station chains, and transferred to urban areas.
Within stores, retailers create opportunities for impulse purchases through special offers and the placement of alcohol opposite or near checkouts, rather than creating conditions whereby the purchase of alcohol is a more conscious and planned decision.
Under the proposals in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, retailers will have to choose to store alcohol either in a separate area of the store, or in a closed storage unit or cabinet which contains only alcohol products.
Although the structural separation of alcohol in mixed trading premises was legislated for in section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 – these provisions of the legislation have not been commenced. Currently, a voluntary code is in operation around mixed retailing that provides for a degree of separation. However, the Code sets out that the guidance on the display and placement of alcohol shall be met “as far as possible”. The PLS hearings on the General Scheme highlighted evidence to the effect that the voluntary code is weak and ineffective because of this.
Restricting the physical availability of alcohol is a critical component of any evidence-based approach to reducing consumption and consequently alcohol harm. Greater ease in obtaining alcohol is associated with greater amounts being consumed. During PLS, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland noted that the placement of alcohol in mixed retail outlets alongside groceries gives the impression that alcohol is an ordinary commodity, and normalises alcohol as part of a weekly shopping list. The Steering Group Report on the National Substance Misuse Strategy has agreed with this conclusion.
Whilst I agree with this provision in theory, we cannot completely ignore the protestations of retailers who argue that Section 20 will force them to make significant alterations to the layout of their stores to comply with the law. According to the Sector, the proposal to have alcohol “not readily visible” is discriminatory as it allows stand-alone off licences to advertise alcohol brands in their front windows and throughout their stores.
More notably they also argue Section 20 will have the effect of driving greater levels of alcohol sales to large supermarkets with whom we have had to compete over the years while they deep discount alcohol products. The retail sector estimate that the impact the viability of smaller stores and put many jobs at risk, in our case we estimate the impact at between 15% & 20% of our current workforce.
Whilst I support the Section 20, I also believe these argument need to be taken into to considerations and provisions must be made to ensure that the livelihoods of small retailers are protected and not put in jeopardy.
This leads me to the subject of Minimum Pricing:
Ireland has relatively high levels of excise duty on alcohol, compared to most of our European neighbours. However, the key concern for public health remains that the cheapest alcohol products in Ireland remain priced at a level that neither reflects the large burden of alcohol harm on Irish society nor even the tax applicable to these products.
Larger Supermarket chains, in particular, can absorb tax increases and ensure that these alcohol products remain priced at very low levels, using discounted alcohol to attract customers to their stores, and increasingly more alcohol is being purchased in the off-trade.
Since the abolition of the Restrictive Practices (Groceries) Order in 2006, alcohol in Ireland can be sold below cost and a retailer can then recover the VAT on the difference between the sale price and the cost price. The Health Research Board (HRB) has pointed out that, ‘in effect, this means that the government is subsidising large retailers that can afford to sell alcohol at below cost price’.
A price survey carried out by Alcohol Action Ireland in July 2016 shows that, purchasing the cheapest alcohol available in the off-trade:
It is possible for a woman to reach her weekly recommended low-risk limit of 11 standard drinks for €4.95.
It is possible for a man to reach his weekly recommended low-risk limit of 17 standard drinks for €7.65.
The widespread availability of discounted alcohol in supermarkets is one of the key issues driving the misuse of alcohol, which is responsible for three deaths every day in Ireland, as well as a wide range of other harms.
Minimum Unit Pricing sets a ‘floor price’ beneath which alcohol cannot legally be sold, but will not increase the price of all alcohol products sold in Ireland, instead targeting the products that are currently very cheap relative to their strength in supermarkets. Minimum Unit Pricing will not affect the price of a pint or any alcohol in the on-trade, which is already priced far above the proposed level.
The targeted approach of Minimum Unit Pricing is important as the strongest, cheapest alcohol products are those generally favoured by the heaviest drinkers among us, who are most at risk of alcohol-related illnesses and death. These strong, cheap alcohol products are also favoured by our children and young people, who generally have the lowest disposable incomes, are very price-sensitive and more vulnerable to the risks associated with alcohol consumption.
Ultimately, this is a measure that can save lives and reduce alcohol harm in Ireland, as part of the range of evidence-based measures contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. International bodies, including the World Health Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, have consistently supported price controls, including MUP, as one of the most effective tools to save lives, reduce alcohol-related harms and the associated costs to public services.
The Scottish Court of Session recently ruled that Minimum Unit Pricing is a legal measure, following challenges in Scotland and in Europe by a consortium of global alcohol producers, fronted by the Scotch Whisky Association.
Regarding the subject of Alcohol Advertising – Section 18
I welcome the amendment made to the Broadcast Watershed, that a person shall not broadcast or cause to be broadcast an advertisement for an alcohol product on a television programme service between the hours of 3am and 9pm.
However, I think the digital marketing of alcohol products to children is an area in which regulation needs to be strong.
I have spoken about this issue before and as such on a personal level I see the merit in the Amendment proposed for Advertising on the Internet – Section 19:
One of the main aims of this Bill is to prevent children from being exposed to advertising. The Bill already restricts advertising near schools and in places such as bus shelters and cinemas. But as introduced it does nothing to address the growing problem of children’s exposure to alcohol advertising online and especially in social media. This amendment fills that gap by requiring advertisers to take reasonable steps to prevent children from viewing alcohol advertising online as well as offline.
I believe this amendment is enforceable – social media firms already apply age controls in respect of alcohol content. For example, Facebook requires adverts for alcohol to be targeted only at users of a certain age or above, with different ages for different companies. Twitter has an age screening feature which requires users to enter their date of birth to follow an alcohol company account.
Where these features exist then this amendment would require alcohol firms to use them – as most have already agreed to do as part of their industry self-regulation or as a condition of advertising on these platforms.
On a personal level, I believe the duty is to take: all reasonable steps having regard to factors such as the cost of the measures and the state of the technology. This means that an alcohol company will not be expected to take unreasonable or disproportionately costly steps. This amendment is essentially codifying existing practices in relation to age gates on websites (“please confirm your date of birth”), advertising controls and social network policies and creating a legal obligation to use the technologies and controls which are already available.
As I stated at the beginning, whilst I welcome this Bill, I feel a far more fundamental shift needs to occur to tackle the alarming rate of alcohol consumption in Ireland