The withdrawal from MEAS by the VFI and LVA has perplexed many in the industry, with the two organisations maintaining that the “current alcohol promotions codes are not applied equally to the on-trade and off-trade and do not reflect current alcohol purchasing habits”.
They “strongly believe there to be an overwhelming case for the development of a new code as the public perceive the current codes as applying to the on-trade only”.
Of this parting of the ways, MEAS Chief Executive Fionnuala Sheehan appeared sympathetic when she stated, “I understand that it was taken reluctantly and out of concern that the voluntary compliance of their members to the MEAS Code’s standards regarding promotions was placing them at a commercial disadvantage vis-à-vis their off-trade competitors and at a time when an unprecedented level of pub closures and job losses is occurring”.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Mr Alan Shatter TD’s response to their action was fairly unequivocal. Expressing surprise and disappointment at the announcement he stated, “I regard this as a backward step and find it difficult to understand. It was my belief that both organisations had as an objective the encouragement of social responsibility in the sale and consumption of alcohol.”
Urging them to reconsider, he warned, “The announcement made is open to the interpretation that they no longer support this important objective”.
But both oranisations believe they’d no alternative “due to the inequities of the current situation” and have called on the Minister to lead the development of a new all-encompassing code for the responsible sale and promotion of alcohol, equally applicable to both the on- and off-trade.
“The Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland (RRAI) code as it applies to the off-trade lacks any meaningful sanctions, does not deal with alcohol promotions whatsoever and is ambiguous, at best, in respect of merchandising,” they argue, adding, “There is no public awareness of this ineffective code which is very narrow in focus”.
Specifically, they’ve requested the Minister to commence, without delay, the regulations set out in the 2008 Intoxicating Liquor Act, particularly those in relation to the structural separation of areas for the sale of alcohol in supermarkets and the regulations regarding the promotion and sale of alcohol across all channels – a ‘bogeyman’ to the multiples that they’ve successfully held at bay.
MEAS too has called on Government to address the unregulated, below-cost sale of alcohol in the off-trade sector and to lead the development of an industrywide code of practice to regulate the merchandising, promotion and sale of alcohol.
What concerns vintners – and has always done so – is that the multiples appear to have no effective enforcement of any code in relation to volume or value promotions and they’d like to see the Minister introduce volume and price codes across the entire retail industry. Otherwise there’s no point in having a code that fails to deal with price and volume offers.
The Minister’s comments above came as he gave the second reading in the Dail to the new Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011.
Amongst other aspects of the law, it provides for amendments to the provisions to the Codes of Practice in regard to the sale of alcohol.
Section 14 of the Bill contains detailed provisions in relation to the preparation and publication of Codes of Practice for the purpose of setting standards for the display, sale, supply, advertising, promotion or marketing of intoxicating liquor across both the on- and off-trades.
According to the Minister, “It’s a new provision, intended to promote voluntary compliance by licensees (or categories of licensees) with quasi-statutory standards and to contribute to a more effective enforcement of the licensing laws by the Gardai”.
At present, the voluntary Code of Practice on the Display and Sale of Alcohol Products in Mixed Trading Premises applies to supermarkets, convenience stores and other mixed trading outlets as a non-statutory alternative to the structural separation provisions in Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008.
The sector established the Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland (RRAI) under its Chairman Padraic White to oversee implementation of the Code and to report the results of an annual independent compliance audit to the Minister.
However vintners’ complain that there’s no sanction or penalty available in cases in which a supermarket or garage forecourt signs up to the code then flouts its provisions. They want one common code covering both the on- and off-trade.
Under Part 5 of Section 14, a new provision is to be introduced across both on- and off-trades in that while breach of a voluntary Code will not of itself be an offence, it will constitute grounds on which an objection can be lodged to the renewal of a licence. Where such an objection is made, the licensee will have to appear before the District Court to explain why the Code is being breached.
The Court will then decide under what conditions the licence can be renewed.
But the devil will be in the detail, according to Donall O’Keefe.
“We’ve written to him this week that Part 5 makes sense to us in that promotional codes will be developed that he’ll apply to both channels equally – we’re happy to support this,” he told Drinks Industry Ireland. And along with their VFI colleagues, they’ve signalled their willingness to get involved in the development of such a code.
In the meantime, perhaps stung into action, the RRAI stepped up to launch a new 24-hour freephone hotline for receiving complaints from the public about breaches of its alcohol-related code of practice in any of the 2,400 signed up to the RRAI voluntary code promoting the responsible display and sale of alcoholic drinks in participating convenience stores, supermarkets, and service stations. Consumers can now submit formal complaints by calling 1800 84 80 80 free-of-charge.