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Saturday 16 December 2017

Opinion: An urban-rural divide lies at the core of row over new drink law

 

Checkpoint (stock)
Checkpoint (stock)
Stock Image
Leo Varadkar.
John Downing

John Downing

It's a tough time of year for some to keep up the morale. October on the calendar, nights drawing in, and once the hour goes back later in the month, it will be dark just after 5pm.

Rural and provincial commuters will again find they are going to and returning from work in the dark. Part-time farmers will find the window of opportunity for chores narrow enough.

For some of us, there is consolation to be had on a high stool with a tall glass and some good company. Right enough, before we go any further, let's all acknowledge that as a nation we have a messed-up relationship with alcohol.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been arguing for quite some time that we need to call time on "alcohol abuse, misuse and overuse". As Health Minister, he introduced the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in December 2015, via the Seanad.

It cleared the so-called second stage, but has been stalled at committee stage in the Seanad for a long time. Now it is being reintroduced by current Health Minister Simon Harris, and the Government says it remains a priority.

In many ways, the Government's claim to be able to make law - any law at all - will stand or fall in the coming months on the progress of this piece of legislation. It is broadly backed by Fianna Fáil, who underpin the minority Coalition. But there are deep - largely rural-urban - divisions within Fine Gael on the issue.

It was Fine Gael Senators who blocked the bill at the third, or so-called committee stage, as they went to war on behalf of the business community. The row was over blocking alcohol from sight in the same way as tobacco and cigarettes have disappeared from our view in shops.

The bill also includes a minimum unit price for alcoholic drinks, spelling an end to the €1 per can of beer in many big supermarkets. It also requires strict health and ingredients labelling on alcohol products and introduces marketing and promotion restrictions.

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The disappearance from view provision is interesting and it has been dubbed the "beer burqa", with the alcoholic drinks in a separate room in the larger stores, or in a screened cabinet in smaller shops. There is a big cost issue: one estimate for Retail Ireland is that store modifications could cost €70m.

The stakes are high and the lobbying has been intense. The harm done by alcohol abuse in Ireland cannot be denied, with up to 1,000 people dying each year from alcohol-related problems and an estimated cost to the health care system of €1.5bn.

But equally, as Fine Gael Waterford Senator Paudie Coffey pointed out during the recent Seanad debate, there is a huge risk of responsible drinkers and responsible shops and publicans becoming caught in the crossfire here.

The health lobby make compelling arguments about the success of the restrictions on tobacco products. But there is an important difference between drink and cigarettes.

It is that there is no good whatever to be derived from smoking. But the same condemnation cannot be levelled at moderate drinking, balanced with proper diet and exercise. On that basis it is fair to say that a 'beer burqa' is just over the top here.

The Brussels-based news magazine, Politico, last week noted that Ireland may be on the cusp of introducing drink controls tougher than those in Nordic countries notorious for their alcohol taboos.

That may be a clue that it is time to consider softening this draft law in efforts not to penalise rural traders doing their best.


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