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Cabinet confusion on alcohol abuse

Junior Minister Roisin Shortall's admission that she didn't know whether or not the Government currently had the legal power to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol illustrates once again that, when it comes to alcohol policy, this Government is at sixes and sevens.

The idea of minimum alcohol pricing, where pubs and off-licences must charge a legally dictated minimum price for a unit of alcohol, the equivalent of a half-pint glass of beer or a small glass of wine, is superficially attractive and not entirely without merit.

It would at least prevent the supermarkets from using alcohol as a loss leader.

However, anyone expecting minimum alcohol pricing to solve the problem of alcohol abuse overnight is likely to be disappointed.

Believe it or not, overall Irish levels of alcohol consumption, while still relatively high, have been falling since the turn of the century.

So how does this tally with research from the Health Research Board showing a 43pc increase in the number of people receiving treatment for alcohol abuse over the past six years? Could it possibly be at least partially explained by reduced tolerance on the part of families, employers and society in general, of alcohol abuse?

The fact that a fifth of all those being treated also abused other, illegal, drugs points to another possible explanation. In modern Ireland alcohol isn't the only drug to be abused by large numbers of people. There are few people under 30 who haven't at least experimented with illegal drugs.

All of which means that alcohol pricing is, at best, only part of the solution. There are very few simple answers to complex questions.

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