In his address, VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben welcomed the Bill but asked for clarity on the following four sections:
The health labelling of Alcohol Products
Padraig Cribben believes it to be imperative that a standardised format be agreed for this particular notification; this is due to the fact that as it stands it’s the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that all alcohol units contain the relevant information.
“We need to avoid the situation where differing administrative officers have different impressions of what is required and this should be agreed in advance with the Department of Health to ensure ease of compliance and full disclosure for the consumer,” he told the Committee.
Minimum Unit Pricing for retailing of alcohol products
The VFI, which represents over 4,000 publicans in the 25 counties outside Dublin, has outlined from the outset its support for the principal of MUP but its Chief Executive stressed that for it to be effective it needs to be set at a rate that will achieve the stated objectives. The Federation believes that the final MUP needs to defined as the price which alcohol cannot be sold below to avoid the situation whereby supermarkets absorb VAT and excise and continue to sell alcohol as a loss leader.
“The Department of Health have indicated that the Minimum Unit Price will be exclusive of VAT and Excise,” he said, “We fail to see how this can actually operate. If the Minimum Price is exclusive of VAT and Excise then, unless it is pitched at an enormously high level, it will be meaningless.”
Regulation of Marketing and Advertising of alcohol
In relation to the regulation of marketing and advertising of alcohol, the VFI Chief Executive sought clarification from the committee on traditional signage already in place outside pubs across Ireland as one of the proposals of the Bill states a requirement that an advertisement for alcohol shall include health information. The VFI asks that these older traditional pub signs are not affected by the bill and that this is specifically detailed.
“Outside of many pubs there are signs, many of which are there for generations, denoting product types and brands,” he explained, “These particular signs do not have that health information or are not amenable to having that information superimposed. This could be interpreted by those charged with the responsibility of implementing the measures of the Bill that these signs could be affected. We would ask that this be specifically addressed in the final Bill.”
Segregated Areas: Enforcement powers for Environmental Health Officers in relation to some of these provisions
The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill states that Environmental Health Officers will have the power to enforce Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008. This section covers the segregation of alcohol in mixed trading outlets such as supermarkets and means that alcohol in supermarkets will have to be sold in a separate section with a separate till. He wanted to know when this would be put in place.
“In recent discussions with the Department of Justice and Equality, they have indicated that there is no intention to commence Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 anytime soon,” he stated, “Instead, they intend to put the current Voluntary Code of Practice on a statutory footing for a two-year period and then assess its success or otherwise. Our position is that Section 9 should be brought into play immediately.”
The Licensed Vintners Association too voiced its strong support for MUP but agreed that the Government must ensure that the price per unit is set at an appropriately high level.
In his submission to the Joint Committee on Health and Children on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, LVA Chief Executive Dónall O’Keeffe said the MUP had to impact consumer behaviour and purchasing patterns.
He said that if the minimum price per unit of alcohol wasn’t set at a realistic level it would completely undermine the new legislation and the Government’s policy objectives.
“Price and availability are the key control mechanisms, recognised internationally, for dealing with alcohol abuse,” he said, “The Government now needs to set a strong minimum retail price – including the minimum price, excise and VAT – to ensure the legislation is effective.”
The LVA has been campaigning for the introduction of minimum pricing for several years and believes the policy objective should be to return off-trade alcohol price levels to those pertaining at the time of the abolition of the Groceries Order in March 2006.
The LVA believes strongly that if the repeal of the Order had included a minimum pricing clause for alcohol, supermarkets and off-licences would have been prevented from engaging in below cost selling.
Adjusting for inflation of 13.6% the LVA believes the price of a 500ml can of lager should be set at €2, the price of a 700ml bottle of vodka should be set at €23.50 and that of a bottle of wine should be priced at €10.
“These prices would eliminate deep price discounting in all categories and would have an immediate and direct impact on alcohol consumption, levels and patterns,” said Dónall O’Keeffe, “We believe returning alcohol prices in real terms to the levels that applied prior to the abolition of the Groceries Order is a rational approach and would be a positive step. The issues caused by the wide availability of very cheap alcohol are obvious to all.”
The LVA has also said that reducing the availability and in-store visibility of alcohol via structural separation with separate staff and tills is essential.
“We would urge the Committee to recommend full structural separation of alcohol in the retail environment. In the final analysis structural separation will always trump a statutory code.”
The National Off-Licence Association too called on the government to stop subsidizing “ultra-cheap” alcohol, with current policies costing the Exchequer €24 million a year.
NOffLA, which was represented at the hearing by Immediate Past Chairperson Evelyn Jones who’s now the Association’s Government Affairs Director, went on to outline a number of measures it believed would significantly curb binge-drinking and associated issues such as anti-social behaviour and health problems.
- The general introduction of the promised Public Health Alcohol bill as a matter of urgency.
- The introduction of an appropriate MUP of between €0.90 and €1.10. For MUP to be effective it must be at an appropriate level and an alternative measure must be sought in case it is found to be illegal under EU law.
- A ban on the below-invoice cost selling of alcohol as set out in Section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 prohibiting the sale of alcohol at a reduced price. It’s important to note that MUP on its own will not deal with the significant discounting of premium brands of alcohol. A ban should be introduced in conjunction and can work in tandem with an appropriate MUP.
Evelyn Jones commented, “The Government has on numerous occasions stated its desire to address the issues associated with alcohol abuse and we welcomed its commitment to introduce the Public Health Alcohol Bill. That being said, we must question the delay of seven years and why the Government has not enacted legislation currently available, Section 9 and 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008, that would make a real impact to the everyday lives of people all over the country.
“It’s important to note that today the State inadvertently subsidises the sale of alcohol through the practice of below-invoice cost selling by which retailers reclaim VAT on the losses they incur on the alcohol they choose to sell at below-invoice cost. This practice, that ultimately costs the taxpayer and exchequer an estimated €24 million per year, could be stopped overnight at no cost to the Exchequer by using existing powers at the disposal of the Government.”
Alcohol Action Ireland’s Chief Executive Suzanne Costello also addressed the committee. She pointed out that Ireland was the second-heaviest binge-drinking country in the world and prior to this Bill, “the lack of action on alcohol harm” was a stark reflection of “how we have not only normalised heavy and harmful drinking in Ireland, but we have also normalised the huge costs that come with it.”
She continued, “Due to the failure to introduce effective regulations and legislation governing this area, the alcohol industry has effectively become Irish children and young people’s primary educator on alcohol”.
In addition representations were made by TCD’s Professor Joe Barry who spoke on labelling and warnings, MUP and enforcement.
“I welcome very much that Environmental Health Officers are going to be given enforcement powers under this legislation. They already provide excellent enforcement within the health arena in relation to environmental tobacco smoke and food safety. Their contribution to minimising harm caused by alcohol in our country will be to the considerable health and social benefit of many Irish people and families of all economic and social classes,” he concluded.