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New Bill to tackle alcohol misuse

09 Dec 2015

Pic: Getty

The Government has approved new legislation to tackle alcohol misuse, which will enable Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) to tackle cheap alcohol.

The price will be set at 10c/gram of alcohol, the effects of which the Department of Health believes will be felt most keenly by high-risk drinkers.

Under the new legislation there is to be strict separation of alcohol products in outlets as well as compulsory health labelling on drinks — requiring grams, calorie count, health warnings and a link to a public health website on alcohol containers.

It was known that four out of 10 drinkers typically engage in binge drinking, Minister for Health Dr Leo Varadkar said today (December 9) at the formal launch of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill at the RCPI in Dublin.

Under the legislation, adverts are to be “strictly informative about the product”, and any breaches will be subject to criminal sanction. There will also be a ban on advertising near schools, playgrounds and public transport, along with a 9pm broadcasting watershed for alcohol adverts. The new law will see a prohibition introduced on price-based promotions and general restrictions on promotions.

The goal, according to the Minister, is to reduce average annual alcohol consumption in Ireland from 11 litres to 9.1 litres per person by 2020. “There’s a huge difference between having a drink on occasion with friends, and indulging in regular binge drinking. The costs are huge: from the damage to personal health and to society, absenteeism, the burden placed on the health services, public disorder and violence, traffic accidents, and the associated mental health consequences,” said the Minister.

“The evidence about Ireland’s drinking habits is shocking,” he added. “This Bill addresses alcohol as a public health issue for the first time by tackling price, availability, marketing, advertising, and labelling.”

The enforcement regime will include inspections by authorised HSE officers and penalties for non-compliance, including fixed payment notices.

Billions saved
The price of alcohol is directly linked to consumption levels, the Department of Health believes. As the price increases, consumption rates and harms decrease: the University of Sheffield has estimated that this measure alone could save €1.7 billion over 20 years by reducing healthcare costs, crime and policing, reduced absenteeism, and improving quality of life. It should also have some immediate effects on health costs, crime costs and absenteeism.

MUP is able to target cheaper alcohol relative to its strength because the minimum price is determined by and is directly proportional to the amount of pure alcohol in the drink. MUP is not expected to affect the price of alcohol in the on-trade sector, as the University of Sheffield study reported that the alcohol products most affected by this policy were those currently being sold very cheaply, often below cost prices, in the off-trade — i.e. supermarkets and off-licences.

Alcohol products behind check-out points will need to be concealed and point of sale advertising of alcohol products will now be confined to the designated display area or the inside of the storage cabinet. These provisions can be easily monitored and enforced by Environmental Health Officers (EHOs).

The Bill will also allow restrictions or bans to be imposed on the sale of alcohol products at a reduced price or free of charge, such as targeted promotions like a ‘students’ night’ or extended promotions for ‘happy days’. Alcohol-related advertisements will be restricted to films with an 18 cert only.

Criminal prosecutions
These measures will be subject to prosecutions under the criminal justice system for the first time.

Warnings in relation to harmful effects of alcohol consumption in general and during pregnancy will also need to be included in any advertisement.

The new Bill will prohibit advertising in certain places including in or near a school, an early years service, a playground owned or maintained by a local authority, a train or bus station, a designated stopping place at which passengers may board or alight from buses, or light railway vehicles. It also sets out the criteria for advertising in cinemas and publications and prohibits advertising in sports grounds for events where the majority of competitors or participants are children or directly on a sports area for all events (for example on the actual pitch, the race track, tennis court etc).

A restriction on merchandising of children’s clothing is also provided for.

All of these provisions will be reviewed after three years from commencement to gauge their effectiveness.

The Broadcasting Act 2009 will be amended to ensure that the Minister of Health is consulted on all health-related aspects of the Code, and including alcohol in the list of products that are subject of public concern in respect of the general public health interests of children. The Bill will be enforced by authorised officers appointed by the HSE.

The opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice on MUP for alcohol products was published on September 3. This case was initiated by Scottish alcohol producers in response to the Scottish Government’s introduction of minimum unit pricing. The Advocate General’s opinion indicates that MUP may be compatible with European Law only if it can be shown to be more effective than other alternative measures.

Gary Culliton

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Irish Medical Times