Welcome measures to tackle our drink problem
Nobody doubts that something needs to be done about the growing problem of alcohol in Irish society. A large number of people concerned about the issue, from the singer Christy Moore to healthcare professionals involved in the treatment of alcohol or hard-pressed staff in A&E departments, have highlighted this issue.
A package of measures has now been announced by the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Alex White, who intends to incorporate them in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.
Advertising controls of alcohol are to be introduced on a phased-in basis over the next four years.
But probably the most significant item in this package of measures is the introduction of minimum unit pricing, which is aimed at ending cheap alcohol sales. The Government believes that this measure, in particular, will target high-strength products, such as vodka, which are being sold cheaply in supermarkets and off-licences.
Professor Frank Murray, Registrar of the Royal College of Physicians, is among those who have advocated the introduction of this measure for some time on the basis that it will reduce consumption of alcohol in general.
The Vintners Federation of Ireland, which represents rural publicans, has also broadly welcomed the measures announced yesterday, but says that it is concerned by lack of firm detail and has urged the minister to fast-track the measures rather than phase them in between 2016 and 2018.
But there are some economists who believe that minimum unit pricing of alcohol is not the right way to tackle alcohol abuse and binge drinking. It leads, they argue, to windfall profits for alcohol manufacturers and may have an unintended side effect of reducing tax revenues.
Instead, they believe the tax code should be used to target harmful drinking. Meanwhile, the Government has side-stepped the thorny and controversial subject of drinks companies sponsoring sporting events. Following strong representations from major sporting organisations, the Government has said that while it recognises the public health concerns surrounding alcohol sponsorship, the potential impact of a ban, or regulations, could be seriously detrimental to the funding of some organisations and high-profile international events, such as the Heineken Cup.
It would seem sensible that at a time when the Government cannot replace such funding, it is better to park the issue for the moment. This will come as a relief to organisations which depend on drinks companies for much-needed funding.
U-TURN ON PROPERTY TAX FUNDS IS A BLOW FOR LOCAL DEMOCRACY
The Government has performed a disappointing U-turn on how the proceeds of the Local Property Tax (LPT) will be spent in 2014. Originally we were told that the bulk of it would go directly to local authorities to fund local services, hence it was called a 'local' tax.
Now the Government has decided that, in 2014, the bulk of this tax, an estimated €240m, will go into central funds and will be used to finance the foundation of Irish Water, the new quango that will impose another tax on homeowners next year with the introduction of water charges.
The biggest losers are the four local authorities that make up the Dublin metropolitan area. It now seems that funds collected from homeowners in Dublin will be used to subsidise local authorities in rural Ireland.
In fact, Labour Party TD Kevin Humphreys went so far as to call the government decision a 'cash grab' against the capital city.
The Department of the Environment says that it will make a "proportion" of the Local Property Tax available to local authorities from 2015, but won't say how much. The latest development will come as a blow to those who believed that LTP would help restore some semblance of local democracy and give property owners a say in how their money was spent.