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Saturday 30 August 2014

Supermarket tax will add to drinkers’ woe

But Seanad bill aims to divert new tax take to tackle suicide

Shane Phelan

Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30

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Picture posed. Thinkstock Images

A NEW proposal to tax off-licence and supermarket alcohol to pay for suicide prevention measures will add an extra 80c on a bottle of wine.

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The controversial measure is part of a bill being moved in the Seanad next month.

Fianna Fail's health spokesman in the upper house, Senator Marc MacSharry, believes the tax could raise up to €200m a year to fund suicide prevention and mental health services for people in crisis.

Under the bill, this money would be ring-fenced for specific services, which he hopes would help cut suicide rates by 30pc within a decade.

Ireland currently ranks fourth in the EU for suicides among young people.

If it makes it onto the statute book, the bill would have a significant impact on the price of alcoholic drinks sold in off-licences.

A bottle of wine currently retailing for €8 would increase in price by 82c, a 500ml can of Heineken retailing at €2.15 would rise in price by 25c, and a one-litre bottle of Smirnoff vodka, currently priced at €28, would cost €31.

The amount levied would be dependent on the volume and strength of the drink, according to the bill, for which Sen MacSharry is seeking cross-party support.

Sen MacSharry said the bill was not intended to penalise owners of pubs, venues and nightclubs, but was "aiming to take advantage of the historically low prices of alcohol intended for consumption at home and elsewhere."

He said he hoped to "harness the goodwill of people" and anticipated support from the public, drinks companies and retailers.

The tax would fund a national 24-hour helpline and the expansion of the role of the National Office of Suicide Prevention, increase the number of resource officers for suicide prevention and establish out- of-hours emergency social worker teams.

However, while the National Off Licence Association said it was in favour of a ban on the below-cost selling of alcohol, it would not offer a view on the Fianna Fail bill when asked by the Sunday Independent.

Mental Health Minister Kathleen Lynch of Labour has also steered clear of commenting on the bill. Her officials said the minister had yet to study the bill in detail.

Dan Neville, a Fine Gael TD and president of the Irish Association of Suicidology, said that in principle he was supportive of aspects of the bill and described its aspirations as "laudable".

However, he did not believe "special taxes" should be introduced and said initiatives should be funded from central government.

"I would be very wary of identifying any one issue around suicide, because suicide is a highly complex issue; 80pc of those who take their lives are suffering from a mental illness," said Mr Neville.

"Alcohol certainly plays a strong role for a lot of people, but not for everybody. It can be life experience, depression, any of the mental illnesses, the recession, pressure on people who are vulnerable after losing their employment or their homes. We would want a broader debate than just alcohol and suicide."

Sen MacSharry said he would welcome input from other parties when the bill reaches committee stage.

"We don't want to have a political Punch and Judy show. We don't care about the ownership of this bill. In 
fact, we would only be too delighted if Kathleen Lynch came in and took it for herself," he said.

"This crisis is as big as it ever was, yet it remains silent. We continue to lose up to 10 men per week to suicide.

"For all the good intentions and for all the positive rhetoric, we continue to lose this battle," he added.

Sunday Independent

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