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North-South consultation on alcohol pricing?

NI government ministers hope to consult with the Minister for Justice and Law Reform here on how best to tackle alcohol abuse through minimum pricing on an all-island basis.

Before the dissolution of the Dail, NI’s Social Development Minister Alex Attwood had stated, “I am meeting the Irish Minister for Justice and Law Reform Dermot Ahern in Dublin in the first week in February. Our discussions will include opportunities for minimum pricing on the island of Ireland, given there is so much cross-border trade including purchase of alcohol`’.

Before that, NI’s Social Development Minister Alex Attwood and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey intend launching a joint consultation on minimum pricing for alcohol in Northern Ireland with plans to be announced in the next few weeks.

NI Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey has met with representatives from the drinks industry on a number of occasions to discuss a range of issues about the harm caused by the misuse of alcohol. He believes that setting a minimum price for alcohol would be a “big step in helping address alcohol misuse.

"Northern Ireland has an increasingly unhealthy relationship with alcohol and that is why I established a cross-government group to drive forward the Young People’s Drinking Action Plan,” he stated recently.

The move follows the Westminster Government’s announcement recently of new plans to ban sales of alcohol at less than the combined cost of VAT and excise for England and Wales recently.

This follows an outright rejection of minimum pricing by the Scottish Parliament last year.

However as the UK government’s proposals on alcohol pricing fail to take into account the cost of producing and distributing the alcohol, many organisations such as the British Medical Association feel that the proposals do not go far enough to make any real difference to binge drinking and alcohol abuse there.

Following the British Government announcement, Alcohol Concern’s Don Shenker urged a re-think of the minimum price per unit of alcohol, stating that, "Duty is so low in the UK that it will still be possible to sell very cheap alcohol and be within the law".

However his claim was questioned by the British Beer & Pubs Association’s Chief Executive Brigid Simmonds who pointed to a BBPA analysis which revealed that beer drinkers in the UK are paying 40 per cent of the EU’s entire beer duty bill and that UK beer taxes are currently well ahead of other European countries.

“When it comes to alcohol taxation, we need a debate based on facts, not myths,” said Brigid Simmonds, “Our alcohol taxes are among the highest in the developed world. When it comes to tacking alcohol misuse, what we need most is improved alcohol education and awareness and tougher, targeted enforcement of the huge range of existing laws. Pubs need lower taxes – and less red tape.

“Our already high taxes show that duty-plus-VAT cannot be used as a proxy for a minimum price for alcohol.
"This would have a particularly devastating effect on pubs.”

But Home Office Minister James Brokenshire commented, “Banning the sale of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT is the best starting point for tackling the availability of cheap alcohol and will send a clear signal to retailers and the public that government takes this issue seriously".

The move would effectively set a minimum price to stop "the worst instances of deep discounting" but limit the burden on businesses, he argued.

In this he was supported by many in the drinks industry including Diageo which described the pricing proposal as the “least distorting option”.

A spokesperson for Diageo emphasised, “We believe the government should concentrate on raising awareness of the dangers of alcohol misuse for adults, providing effective education on alcohol for under-18s and enforcing existing legislation on licensing and under-age sales".

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