Deirdre O'Shaughnessy: 'Pricing is a quick fix until we change our drinking habits'

Deirdre O'Shaughnessy

We have a problem with drink. And no, it isn’t the price of it, though we never stop complaining about that, and soon it’ll be even higher.

More than half of Irish people drink harmfully.

This isn’t about drunken street fighters, secret drinkers with vodka in their handbags or homeless winos.

It’s about how almost all of us – doctors, dentists, soldiers, sailors, housewives – in Ireland drink far too much, far too regularly.

The new measures announced this week by Health Minister Leo Varadkar to up the price of drink have people in a spin, but are they really going to make any difference to our national addiction?

There are numerous ways a government can tackle problem drinking.

Some of the options recommended by the World Health Organisation include regulating physical availability (we have that with 10pm off-licence closures and restricted pub serving hours); taxation and pricing (we already pay a lot of tax on booze; drink-driving counter-measures (we have garda checkpoints); regulating promotion (we have very restricted alcohol advertising); and education.


In short, there have been lots of measures designed to cut Irish people’s drink consumption, and none of them have worked.

We pay high duties on alcohol, penalties for drink-driving are high, we have restricted access and still we binge-drink more than almost anyone else in the world, second only to the Austrians.

Despite all these measures, between 1990 and 2006 the number of off-licences in Ireland multiplied by five.

According to Alcohol Action Ireland, in the week sampled by the Irish Alcohol Diaries 2013 survey, 43pc of standard drinks were consumed at home, 42pc in a pub/nightclub and 10pc in a restaurant or hotel.

You can’t blame Leo Varadkar for looking at the price of booze, deciding it’s a luxury, and slapping another few quid onto the price of a pint or a bottle of wine.

Under his new minimum pricing proposals, a bottle of wine cannot be sold for less than €8.80, with a can of beer to be priced at €2.20.

With pubs already charging far more than this, it’s clear that these measures are aimed at supermarkets and off-licences.

Alcohol Action Ireland points out that a woman can reach her low-risk limit for drinking in one week for €6.30 and a man for less than €10.

Considering that the minimum wage is €8.65 an hour, it seems alcohol is just about the only luxury we have equal access to, but that is about to change.

It’s hard to see, though, what real changes this will make to drinking patterns.

This measure is not going to stop alcoholics drinking. It’s not going to prevent anyone drinking for whom that extra euro on a can of beer is not a problem.

I don’t see it preventing even cash-strapped teenagers from drinking – if they want it, they will find a way of getting it.

It might stop you having the third pint, if you’d have to break another note.

It might stop that bottle of wine going into the basket with the milk and bread in the garage on the way home.

So it’s probably better than nothing. Announcing it, the minister himself said “the perfect is the enemy of the very good”. I kind of agree.

Something is better than nothing, but what we really need is a long-term commitment to fixing this problem, and we don’t have it, as a society.

Like most of the other measures outlined above that we do enforce, minimum unit pricing is a quick-fix solution when what is needed is time and resources.

Not just money. Human resources. Cultural capital.

A willingness to change and to invest time into that change to ensure that it actually happens. A willingness to drink less alcohol

Without a real commitment from the public that elects them, no politician can make that happen, and they’d be foolish even to try.