The move had been held up by the Scotch whisky industry which had challenged the ruling as a breach of European law.
However the Scottish Court of Session in Edinburgh’s judges ruled that the grounds submitted by the SWA “were not well founded”.
The Scottish development makes the path to MUP here easier with Minister Simon Harris and Minister of State Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, who is steering the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill through the Seanad and Dáil, welcoming the ruling.
“I welcome the Scottish Court judgment that alternative measures, including increases in taxation, are not capable of protecting life and health as effectively as minimum pricing,” stated Minister Corcoran Kennedy, “We know that MUP is a proportionate measure that will effectively target the widespread access to alcohol that is very cheap relative to its strength and therefore included a minimum unit price in the Government’s Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
“MUP is targeted at those who have a harmful alcohol consumption pattern.”
Minimum unit pricing for alcohol is just one of a number of measures included in the Bill. Other provisions include compulsory health labelling of alcohol products, the regulation of advertising and sponsorship of alcohol, the separation of alcohol products in mixed trading outlets and the regulation of the sale and supply of alcohol in certain circumstances.
Minister Corcoran Kennedy will be meeting with members across all parties today to address any outstanding issues that they might wish to raise before the Bill goes to Seanad Committee’s third stage tomorrow before being re-scheduled for stages four and five. After that, the Bill goes back to the Dáil.
“I understand there are some concerns and I want to listen to and work with Oireachtas colleagues on all sides to progress this important public health measure. I believe any concerns can be allayed and any misunderstandings clarified and I hope that we will move forward in a spirit of consensus to pass this landmark piece of legislation into law.
“The Bill was initiated by the last Government and is a priority for this Government. The measures underwent pre-legislative scrutiny and were supported by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. The most recent Healthy Ireland survey was yet more evidence that Ireland has a problem with alcohol and that we need to take action.”
The Minimum Unit Price is set in the Bill at 10 cent per gram of alcohol.
This would put the minimum price of a 500ml can of beer (5%ABV) at €1.97, that for a 750ml bottle of wine at €7.40 and that for a 750ml bottle of spirits at €23.97.
The Minister can increase the Minimum Unit Price three years after commencement and every 18 months thereafter, following a review.
The Department of Health argues that despite Ireland having relatively high excise duty rates the price of alcohol remains relatively affordable, particularly in supermarkets.
It states, “A woman can reach her low risk weekly drinking limit for just €6.30, while a man can reach this weekly limit for less than €10”.
It adds that a University of Sheffield study found that “a ban on below-cost selling (implemented as a ban on selling alcohol for below the cost of duty and VAT) would have a negligible impact on alcohol consumption or related harms. Banning below-cost would be difficult to implement, monitor and enforce. MUP is easier to understand, measure and enforce than a ban on below-cost selling.
“Further increases in excise rates would render premium and higher-priced alcohol more expensive, which is unnecessary for the purpose of targeting hazardous and harmful drinkers – who purchase larger quantities of cheap alcohol,” argues the Department.
Alcohol Action Ireland described the Scottish court decision as a “positive ruling for public health in Ireland”, adding that, “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”.
The VFI too welcomed the decision and hopes that it will encourage this government to introduce the same measure here along with other key measures outlined in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
The VFI has called for action to ensure the safe and responsible sale of alcohol for several years and has campaigned for the introduction of MUP for some time. It now urges speedy implementation of this measure.
“Likewise, we would also urge speedy implementation with regard to segregation in mixed trading outlets,” it added, “Our preference has always been for alcohol to be sold separately in a physically segregated area of the supermarket with its own till. The Bill as it stands is short of this but addresses separation which is still a positive step in curbing the irresponsible sale of cheap alcohol. However it needs to be policed appropriately.”
The VFI believes that any long-term strategic approach to tackling alcohol misuse must address the core issues of availability and affordability.
“Ultimately, the proposals contained in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill are long overdue and we need the Government to proceed with urgency,” it concluded.
NOffLA also welcomed the decision, with its Government Affairs Director Evelyn Jones describing it as “an important day for public health policy across Europe. The outcome of this case hopefully marks the end of MUP’s lengthy legal process. We urge the Government to push ahead and introduce MUP in Ireland as part of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill immediately.
“MUP is a vital tool in addressing social health and public order issues while also encouraging a sustainable retail environment. The introduction of MUP will help tackle the irresponsible retail of alcohol at ultra-cheap prices and ensure that alcohol is no longer sold at prices cheaper than water.”
However ABFI sounded a note of caution and has asked for time to study the verdict of the Scottish Court of Session.
“We ask the Government to reflect on today’s decision carefully before similar measures are introduced in this country,” stated ABFI Director Ross Mac Mathúna, “We maintain that a ban on below-cost selling which would ensure that alcohol is not sold as a loss-leader is an appropriate public health response to the sale of cheap alcohol. Given that we already pay the highest price and amongst the highest taxes in the EU for alcohol, it’s evident that price is not a silver bullet for tackling alcohol misuse. We remain committed to working with Government and other stakeholders in order to address the issue of harmful alcohol use.”
He also asked the Government to be mindful of the border with Northern Ireland when considering whether to proceed with the introduction of MUP.
“With the decline in the value of sterling post the Brexit vote, cross-border shopping is on the increase and raising the price of alcohol in the Republic on a unilateral basis would further exacerbate this while doing little to address harm,” he said.
The drinks industry has strongly lobbied Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Senators to put forward proposed amendments to the Bill.
“The lobbying is stepping up” as the Amendments debate got closer according to a government source quoted in The Irish Times last Friday, “Everyone’s in favour of the Bill until they get lobbied.”
The Convenience Stores & Newsagents Association has warned that Section 20’s proposals around structural separation will have extremely negative consequences on small and medium-sized retailers.
“Every single retailer with a licence to sell alcohol should be seriously concerned about Section 20 of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill on structural separation,” stated CSNA Chief Executive Vincent Jennings, “Simply put, this is an anti-small business law. A law on structural separation will require retailers to implement one of two measures.
“Alcohol products must solely be displayed in either a designated area not visible from the outside, or in a dark cabinet, with correlating advertising restrictions. Costing estimates for refitting stores tell us that prices will range from €5,000 to €60,000. This demonstrates not only how little clarity our sector has been given, but also the lack of Government engagement. No proper costing exercise has been carried out and no specifics provided on the requirements. Not only that, but upheaval will be caused for small and medium-sized retailers as they will be obliged by law to implement the measures within one year. In spite of this, no evidence exists to show that structural separation will make any difference in terms of achieving a reduction in harmful drinking, in accordance with the PHAB’s stated aim.
“The Government is seeking to enact legislation that will not achieve its goal, and pillage small shops in local communities around the country in the process. No empirical or peer-tested research justifies this stringent measure.”
IBEC and the drinks industry have asked senators to submit Amendments and Finna Fáil’s chef de cabinet Deirdre Gillane told senators in her party that, “Small retailers are very concerned about the charges they are facing due to segregation. There are recommendations in the Bill so amendments on this should be submitted. That should be changed if at all possible as small retailers are already under enormous pressure.”
She added that IBEC and the drinks industry “are lobbying hard for balance and also that Irish alcohol products should not be treated differently to EU alcohol products”. And while she added that health experts disagree with them, the industry also believes that it does not make sense to have labels on Irish alcohol products referencing the HSE website.
“The labelling requirements – they believe – will have a negative impact on Ireland’s ability to export the products from here as the industry is concerned about the added costs”.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher said that he, Deirdre Gillane and health researcher Declan Ryan, would formally consider the industry Amendments as they would from every side.
The Times report added that the cross-party group on alcohol harm, chaired by Senator Frances Black, is also putting forward amendments, although these are from a public-health perspective and supported by doctors and medical groups.
The Scotch Whisky Association might yet appeal the ruling to the UK’s Supreme Court.