by Frank Schnittger
Mon Jan 10th, 2022 at 08:31:05 PM EST
Like nearly all countries, Ireland has an addiction problem with alcohol, smoking, prescribed drugs, illicit drugs and gambling the chief offenders. Many drugs addicts are "polydrug" abusers, consuming alcohol, prescribed drugs or whatever illicit drugs come to hand fairly indiscriminately. Sometimes the addiction is as much social as physiological or neurological. Sometimes the motivation is as much self-medication or self-harm as pleasure.
The Irish government has just introduced "Minimum Pricing" for alcohol for retail outlets. This will increase the minimum price of (for example) a bottle of wine from 5 to 7.40.
Many aspects of the legislation I can agree with, such as the ban on multipack or 2 for 1 promotions designed to increase purchases beyond what the consumer originally intended to buy. However the minimum pricing itself I think a poorly thought out measure, and so I had a letter published by both the Irish Times and the Independent saying the following:
Had Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe chosen to put extra duty on alcoholic drinks in the last Budget, few could have objected. The extra tax revenue could have gone to fund our health services.
Instead, the Government has chosen to force retailers to increase their margins on cheaper drinks. Not only have they done so in compliance with the law, but my local supermarket has increased the prices of mid-range alcoholic drinks as well - presumably to maintain the price differential between mid-range and budget brands. Only the most expensive brands have been spared a price increase.
This will increase inflation, which is already at very high levels for hard-pressed consumers, and also serves to increase the profits of already very profitable supermarket chains and other retailers.
It hits the less well-off disproportionately while leaving the well-heeled and their top-of-the-range beverages untouched.
A duty increase would at least have increased prices across the board, but the Government has again chosen to protect the rich at the expense of the hard-up.
As a result I was asked to contribute to Liveline, a popular radio programme on the issue. My segment in the above linked programme is from 23 minutes to 29 minutes where I also included a comparison with Spain where alcohol prices are much lower, and yet their alcohol consumption per capita per annum is lower than Ireland's.
In my experience, alcohol consumption in Spain is more often as an accompaniment to food in family and social settings not conducive to binge drinking. I also tried to make the case that a government tax increase would have been more equitable and could have been used to raise funds for drastically under-funded addiction treatment services. I also expressed concern that the rise in alcohol prices could drive some addicts towards more harmful drugs.
From what I can see the evidence base for Minimum pricing reducing problem drinking is very limited indeed. Similar measures were only recently introduced in Canada, Scotland, and Wales and research on the outcomes has been very limited and contradictory to date. Several reformed alcoholics who appeared on the radio programme said that price was not a deterrent to their addiction and would not have changed their behaviour at the time.
My larger political concern is that minimum pricing will come to be seen as one more attack by the establishment on the young (who are more likely to consume cheaper brands). The government is already in trouble for its failure to ensure that affordable housing is available for young people, and of course Covid restrictions on socialising have had a disproportionate effect on the young. I therefore responded somewhat waspishly to a letter published in the Irish Times by EUNAN McKINNEY. My (as yet unpublished) response is as follows:
In his rather haughty putdown of all who dare to question the equity of the Minimum Pricing legislation, EUNAN McKINNEY, Head of Communications of the government funded Alcohol Action Ireland quango claims to be the only one concerned at the economic damage alcohol abuse causes. He also criticises the alcohol industry for spending 100 Million on media and marketing support but fails to note that this figure is dwarfed by the government spend on the quango industry in this country.
He further claims that those with a low-risk engagement with alcohol will see hardly any change in their annual alcohol spend as they apparently don't consume the cheaper brands most effected by minimum pricing. And yet he also claims that the least affluent drink less. So who is it who is buying all the cheap booze? Apparently, the government has performed the unique feat of targeting only the less discerning drinker. No doubt they will get their answer from less discerning voters.
It is important that alcoholism and excessive drinking does not come to be seen as an intergenerational issue and heavy handed interventions on the part of paid advocates for government policy are not helpful in this regard. I recall the youth rebellion of the 1960s (mainly the 1970's in Ireland) and the counter-culture it gave rise to. Alienating our younger people is not something we want to do especially at a time when, due to Covid-19, social solidarity and voluntary compliance with social distancing guidelines are more important than ever.
But this is a difficult area, and there are no clear cut answers. I would welcome contributions from people with experience of the situation in other countries.