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Dan White: Pubs need to raise the bar to stay open

ThIS week's Guinness results, which revealed that pub sales fell by 14pc last year confirm that time is almost up for the traditional Irish boozer.

The writing has been on the wall for our pubs for many years. Not alone did booze sales peak as long ago as 2000, we have been doing more and more of our drinking at home. Who needs to pay a fiver or more for a drink in the pub when you can often buy the same drink in the local off-licence for the equivalent of a quid or less?

During the past decade, just about everything that could have gone wrong for the pubs did go wrong.

The 2000 Intoxicating Liquor Act, which was designed to make it easier to open new pubs in recently built suburbs, instead cleared the path for the rise of the off-licences, which now have approximately 55pc of the total drinks market.

Then there was the 2004 smoking ban. While its effect may have been exaggerated, there is little doubt that the hassle of having to step outside for a smoke encouraged many smoker-drinkers to stay at home instead.

At the same time that new off-licences were opening on every street corner and the smoking ban was making drinkers think twice about heading out to the pub, the Irish population was ageing, reducing the number of 18- to 35-year-olds -- the peak drinking age.

Just for good measure, the government finally got serious about drunk driving and introduced random breath-testing of motorists in 2005.

However, while the publicans can hardly be blamed for the proliferation of off-licences, the smoking ban and demographic changes, they then added a few blunders all of their own.

As the number of off-licences soared, the publicans insisted on piling on one price increase after another. This widened the price gap between the pubs and the offies to ridiculous levels.

The publicans also almost completely missed out on the rise in popularity of wine, which now accounts for almost a quarter of total alcohol consumption.

Even more importantly, wine is the drink of choice for many women who account for almost two-thirds of wine consumption. But just one glass of wine in every 10 is drunk in pubs.

Perhaps most incredible is the fact that two-thirds of pubs outside of Dublin still don't serve food and a third in the capital are food-free zones. Do these guys have a death wish or something?

And as for drunk driving, don't get me going. Suffice to say that the many country publicans still don't get it and seem to think that their customers have a God-given right to get behind the wheel after a feed of drink.

Overpriced booze, awful wine, no grub and a failure to engage with the issue of drink driving. How can anyone be surprised that the publicans are on their knees?

This weeks's second-quarter results from Diageo, the British drinks giant which owns Guinness, Baileys and Smirnoff, shows just how desperate things have become for the publicans. Irish booze sales were 10pc lower in the three months to the end of December than they were a year earlier, while pub sales collapsed by 14pc.

Although Diageo boasts that its Irish sales fell by "only" 9pc in the second quarter and that it gained market share in both pubs and off-licences, that's scant consolation. It's a bit like two skydivers whose parachutes have failed to open. While the skydiver who was second out of the plane won't hit the ground quite as soon as his colleague, hit it he will.

The drinks market has changed beyond recognition during the past decade.

Most publicans haven't adapted well to these changes. Unless they make some radical changes, many pubs are set to go the way of the dodo.