Outlawing cheap alcohol 'could breach EU rules'
Health Minister Leo Varadkar faces a setback in his plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol, after it emerged the move could breach EU rules.
The European Court of Justice's advocate general said in an official opinion that it would only be legal if it could be shown that no other mechanism - such as increasing tax - could deliver the desired public health benefits.
The opinion was delivered to the Scottish government, which also wants to introduce minimum pricing. Now Ireland could be bound by the same constraints.
However, in response, Mr Varadkar said the Government "welcomes the opinion" and was encouraged by "some aspects".
It indicates that minimum unit pricing may be compatible with EU law if it can be shown to be more effective than other, alternative measures.
"Therefore, I will be asking my officials to study his opinion and its implications as we wait for the final judgment of the court, which is expected towards the end of the year.
"In the meantime, the publication of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill remains a priority. This bill is now at an advanced stage and I look forward to publishing the bill in the coming weeks," Mr Varadkar said.
He added that the proposed legislation included minimum unit pricing, separation of alcohol from other products in shops, health warning labels, restrictions on advertising and marketing of alcohol, the regulation of sports sponsorship and restrictions on certain promotional activities.
Under the proposals unveiled earlier this year for minimum pricing in Ireland, a bottle of wine could cost a minimum of €8.80 and a can of beer at least €2.20.
Professor Frank Murray, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, appealed to the Government not to lose its resolve to introduce minimum pricing.
"Each day's delay in enacting this law costs lives and damages health," he warned.
Alcohol Action Ireland said there was nothing in the court's opinion that impedes the Government. The Scottish Court of Sessions had already considered the matter and concluded taxation was likely to be less effective in meeting the aims, said chief executive Suzanne Costello.
Vintners' organisations, representing pubs here, expressed disappointment, saying that below-cost selling, particularly by supermarkets, has been a huge problem, particularly for young people, for over a decade.
Alcohol products that are strong and cheap are those favoured by the heaviest drinkers, who are most at risk of alcohol-related illness and death, and young people, who have the least disposable income.
The European Court of Justice is expected to take six months to issue its final ruling.