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Government plans to increase booze prices will drive many of us to drink


Low-cost alcohol could soon be a thing of the past

Low-cost alcohol could soon be a thing of the past

Michael Healy-Rae

Michael Healy-Rae


Low-cost alcohol could soon be a thing of the past

Ireland is an eternally forgiving place for the greedy, the reckless and the utterly twisted. When a small number of gamblers lost the plot and broke the bank, blame was shifted to the general citizenry and every last one of us was forced to assume responsibility for the gambling debts.

Meanwhile, when the Government finally decided to tackle the problem drinking of a minority, ministers instinctively opted for a similar strategy of punishing the innocent. The proposed introduction of minimum-pricing for alcohol will substantially increase the cost of a bottle of wine or a can of beer for everybody, not just booze abusers. Paying the tab for the country's liquor-fuelled excesses is, evidently, a national obligation from which no-one can be exempted. We all partied.

The government measures designed to reduce alcohol consumption, announced last week by Health Minister Leo Varadkar, has received a predictably mixed response. Binge drinking and alcoholism are long-standing and deep-rooted issues in this country. Consequently, many of our countryfolk have grown accustomed - maybe even addicted - to the reassuring pleasures of endless argument about what ought to be done. When the authorities actually do something, many disputants react with the blinking outrage one encounters among afternoon drinkers in darkened pubs when a door opens and a blast of daylight intrudes on their cosily gloomy musings.

Trenchant criticism of the Government's plan was inevitable. But what Varadkar and his cabinet colleagues should really worry about is the giddy enthusiasm with which their plans have been greeted by central players in the drinks marketplace, the vested interests that would be seriously discomfited were the proposals even remotely likely to achieve their stated goals.

Publicans were the first to metaphorically pop the champagne corks, raising a loud cheer for the proposed clampdown on the below-cost selling of alcohol by supermarkets. The off-licence trade was equally cock-a-hoop. Dearer booze for all was presented as an unqualified boon for the health of the nation. The windfall it promises for the tills of pubs and off-licences went conspicuously unmentioned.

The fingerprints of the drinks industry are all over the Government's plan and it's hardly surprising that spokespeople and spin-doctors for the sector have been so upbeat.

The abandonment of all talk about prohibiting drinks giants from sponsoring sports events was expected, but there was additional good news for the corporate suits in the coalition's decision to stick with the existing sponsorship code of practice.

There are things to like about Varadkar's proposals. The restrictions on alcohol advertising are especially welcome. It is heartening, for instance, to hear that it will soon be illegal to market alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. But, in passing, we should pause to wonder why such a law is deemed necessary. Just who are these despicable scoundrels who have to be legally restrained from pushing booze on kids?

Oh yeah, that would be the drinks industry - the State's oh-so-responsible partners in efforts to reform Ireland's drinking culture.

Ultimately, however, the most significant feature of Varadkar's package of measures is the mooted price increase - a move that will penalise the vast majority while having only a marginal impact on the behaviour of harmful drinkers. Price will never matter to the addict, whatever the drug. Persistent heavy boozers will grumble, but most will scrimp on other aspects of their spending rather than change the habits of a drinking lifetime.

Boozehound teenagers, the demographic about which the Government professes most concern, will simply find new ways of extorting cash from their parents. Pester power, after all, is index-linked and inflation-proofed.

Minimum alcohol pricing is also an extremely crude tool when it comes to the bigger picture. Over time, higher prices may well have the desired effect of reducing the overall level of alcohol consumption. But a drop in the national consumption rate does not necessarily entail a reduction in the widespread abuse of alcohol by individuals. Indeed, in a situation where supermarket prices increase, the likelihood is that modest, infrequent tipplers will cut back while serious bingers will carry on - and carry out - regardless.

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There is also considerable evidence to suggest that the price hikes will exacerbate the hardship experienced by some of the country's poorest households. Remarkably, however, Government continues to formulate health policy with little or no reference to the central role played in this area by deprivation.

As it happens, last week saw the publication of a major new international study on health inequalities among adolescents. The study focused on half a million school-going youngsters from 34 countries, including Ireland. Its central finding is that health and wealth are inextricably linked. Children in well-off families are getting healthier, fitter and more health conscious while children from poorer backgrounds are less physically active, more prone to illness and more likely to have a larger body mass index. In other words, the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting fatter and sicker.

Forcing poor people to pay more for their booze seems especially cruel and counterproductive at a time when they have good reason to drink.



Girls just wanna have funding - sometimes, at any cost. Even in the comparatively privileged world of third level education, it seems, the most attractive money-making option for many young women involves recourse to the world's oldest profession.

Over 200 female students at Queen's University in Belfast have reportedly signed up to Seeking Arrangement, a website which facilitates transactions whereby wealthy bigshots pay cash-strapped young women for their company and, often, for sex. The girls, known as "sugar babies", are offered up to £3000 (¤3,900) per month to accompany "sugar daddies" and occasionally "sugar mommas" to restaurants, nightclubs and functions, as well as on overnight trips and weekends away. The website is also attracting growing interest in the Republic.

Brandon Wade, the American founder of Seeking Arrangement, claims the service offers over two million profiles of young women from almost 40 countries, a third of whom are students. Wade (44) - who met his wife through the website - argues that relationships explicitly based on financial contracts are becoming more commonplace. "Love is a concept made up by poor people," he has declared.

As with any economic phenomenon, there are multiple forces at work here, not least student loans and recessionary pressures. However, the bizarre aura of 'cool' that surrounds enterprises like Seeking Arrangement is a product of cultural mores, stemming largely from a curiously perverted definition of female empowerment which holds that 'gold digging' is a legitimate, and indeed, admirable pursuit for a discerning young woman.

Material girls have always existed and there's never been a shortage of rich old geezers willing to shell out for nubile flesh. But we've had to wait until the enlightenment of the modern age for an ideology that presents female commodification as women's liberation. Sugar babyhood is just a sweetened form of arrested development.



Michael Healy-Rae laments the death of rural Ireland. Deaths in rural Ireland, however, are a different matter. The Kerry South TD boasts that he has "no sympathy" for burglars who are shot dead by homeowners with legally held firearms. Healy-Rae argues that rural crime would be alleviated if intruders ran a higher risk of encountering shotgun justice. He says he "wouldn't be sorry" if a criminal went "home in a box".

Healy-Rae evidently fancies himself as a tough guy. He denounces the "soft" attitudes of bleeding-hearts. But, in truth, it's the capped crusader who is allowing emotion to run riot. A TD's sympathy is irrelevant when bullets fly. More guns would inevitably mean more gun casualties, and it won't always be the bad guys who get shot.

Healy-Rae poses as the defender of rural Ireland. By advocating dangerously simplistic solutions, however, the would-be watchman has a habit of shooting himself in the foot.

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