Tuesday 20 August 2019

€2.50 pub pints should be outlawed, says FG TD

Wetherspoon defends cheap drink and will fight minimum pricing

Mary Mitchell O'Connor has called for minimum unit pricing
Mary Mitchell O'Connor has called for minimum unit pricing

Allison Bray

British pub chain J.D.Wetherspoon has vowed to proceed with plans to open 30 pubs here offering rock bottom drink prices, despite the Government's plan to introduce minimum alcohol pricing this year.

The 1,000 pub business recently opened its Forty Foot pub in Dun Laoghaire following the successful summer launch of the Three Tun Tavern in Blackrock in south Dublin.

Plans for more pubs this year will continue, despite calls from Dun Laoghaire-based Government TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor and Alcohol Action Ireland for the immediate introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) - not just in off-licences, but also in pubs.

Alcohol Action Ireland say that curbs are needed to tackle dangerously high levels of binge drinking and alcohol consumption, especially among those in their late teens and 20s.

But Wetherspoon spokesman, Eddie Gershon, said Health Minister Leo Varadkar's promise in the Dail last month to publish a draft form of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in January, which would set strict limits on the lowest price at which alcohol can be sold, will not thwart its expansion plans.

"We are completely against it," he said of the bill.

"But if minimum pricing came in, it wouldn't stop us from expanding here," he told the Sunday Independent."However, we would remain vociferous in our opposition to it."

The chain, which prides itself on "competitively-priced" pub food and alcohol, is selling pints of beer for an average of €2 less than its competitors in south Dublin, with prices for wine and spirits considerably below those of its competitors.

According to the drinks menu at the Forty Foot, a pint of Bath Ales Dark Side Stout costs €2.50, while a 175ml glass of Coldwater Creek California Chardonnay costs €3.95. A shot of Bacardi Superior rum and Absolut and Huzzar vodka costs €3.95 for a 35.5ml serving, including a free mixer, with a double shot for an extra €2.

The chain has already taken control of a derelict building in Dublin's Camden Street "creative quarter" as well as properties in Swords, north county Dublin and Blanchardstown. Its expansion plans include opening pubs in Cork and Waterford cities as part of its ambitious proposals to open 30 new pubs nationwide.

But Mr Gershon stressed that Wetherspoon's is not interested in attracting heavy or binge drinkers, arguing its well-trained staff has a zero tolerance policy towards serving drunk or unruly drinkers.

"It's not a volume thing. It's more of a corporate policy to keep prices down," he said.

But Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, whose constituency also includes Blackrock, wrote a letter to local businesses last month outlining her concerns about Wetherspoon's opening in Dun Laoghaire.

Citing the refusal of brewing giant Heineken to allow Wetherspoon to sell pints of its lager for less than €3 here, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor said this "welcome move accurately and strongly illustrates how below-cost selling is neither successful nor beneficial to the business community".

As a result of the row, Wetherspoon has stopped selling Heineken products at the chain's 931 UK pubs.

Deputy Mitchell O'Connor said her main concern is the availability of cheap alcohol - whether served in a pub or bought at a supermarket.

"It's not only threatening the livelihoods of local publicans but putting lives at stake," she said.

"Irish people are among the heaviest drinkers in Europe, and we have a particular issue with young people binge drinking. It is extremely important to counteract below-cost selling while still ensuring the continued success of businesses."

Suzanne Costello, CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland, said the new bill is intended to prevent supermarket chains from selling alcohol as "loss leaders" in order to curb alcohol consumption. Research shows extremely low prices encourages over-consumption.

She denied the new law will have a negative impact on pubs, arguing that minimum price rules won't cause their supply prices to rise. "If anything, it will encourage people to return to the pubs instead of 'pre-drinking or post-drinking' at home. It's not prohibition. It's a health issue, not a business issue," she said.

Sunday Independent

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