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NOffLA speaks: Tackling low-cost alcohol

Cheap alcohol appeals to the most vulnerable of customers and professional retailers neither need, nor want, that type of business, writes Martin Maloney

beerSetting a minimum price per unit of alcohol has been proposed as a means to tackle the availability of cheap alcohol in Ireland.

A recent feature article in The Irish Times by Brian O’Connell, proposed a direct response to the continued availability of low-cost alcohol by calling for a minimum price to be established for each unit of alcohol.

The concept is not unique. It formed part of alcohol legislation proposed by the Scottish Nationalist Party in recent weeks, this particular element of which was not finally approved. Had it been passed, it would have set a minimum price for alcohol per unit of alcohol, definitively bringing to an end the practice of below-cost selling by any retailer.

Scandalous practices

Brian O’Connell is in no doubt as to the importance of finding a solution to the cheap availability of alcohol. “The legislation is needed at this point because supermarket chains and other off-trade retailers are engaged in scandalous practices of selling low or below-cost alcohol.” The writer had only to look at his local supermarkets and non-specialist alcohol retailers for several examples of the practice. He describes an offer by one petrol forecourt chain as having a summer offer of twenty bottles of a branded beer for €17.99, which he describes as working out “at about 90 cent per bottle or roughly the same as a small bottle of water.”

Echoes of NOffLA Policy

Brian O’Connell’s comparison will ring familiar bells for NOffLA members and echoes of NOffLA policy. Former NOffLA Chairman, Jim McCabe, often questioned the logic of such a dichotomy in pricing: “How can any circumstance be justified that makes a can of beer cheaper to buy than a can of coke?” The former NOffLA chairman’s comments were prompted by his frustration in witnessing the undermining of years of work in developing a Responsible Trading in the Community environment as a result of these price wars: “The promotion of alcohol in this manner can only be regarded as irresponsible and will inevitably lead to over-indulgence by consumers, which is to be deplored.” NOffLA members want to sell alcohol, but, as professional retailers, they have no interest in doing so at a cost to society. Cheap alcohol based on volume purchases appeals to the most vulnerable of customers and professional retailers neither need, nor want, that type of business.

NOffLA first to act

While NOffLA has called many times for Government commitment on this issue, the association has not shirked its responsibility on the matter. In fact, NOffLA led the way in relation to tackling this issue and Jim McCabe believes that this has been to the benefit of society in general – and to the continued success of the independent off-trade: “We have found ourselves in the unique position of being the first organisation within the drinks industry to take positive, practical steps to tackle a serious problem that has had a damaging impact in relation to the image of our business over a number of years.”

Public health support

Brian O’Connell’s contention that a public health lobby would support such a move is borne out by the submissions of the sector to the Government-appointed Alcohol Advisory Group. The submission on behalf of the Institute of Public Health, supporting that of the College of Physicians in Ireland and the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, was unequivocal in its stance. The submission underlined the proven “link between the availability of alcohol and consumption patterns and that many international groups conclude that alcohol availability should be limited”. The Institute also expressed a definitive view on the pricing strategies that have been used by multiples in recent months: “We also believe that there should be an end to special promotions by supermarkets”.

Consensus

Brian O’Connell’s article referred to an evolving consensus between the public health lobby and the drinks industry. NOffLA has been spearheading such a consensus for many years. Perhaps this Government will now recognise that this consensus has now reached a critical mass and act upon it?

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