Tuesday, 12 May 2015
Alcohol Consumption in Ireland: Statements
I thank the Senators for having this timely and important debate on alcohol. I particularly thank them for their kind words about me and my performance as Minister for Health. To be honest, some days I do not feel I am achieving an awful lot. There is so much going on in any given day, so many moving parts and so many different interest groups, that it is really difficult to get a grip on matters, but I am determined that this will be one of the areas in which we will have a clear outcome, by having this legislation enacted before we all finish our current terms in the Dáil and Seanad.
I will touch briefly on a few points that were made. Senator Mullen asked whether we can provide retail labelling. It would be a good idea to be able to trace back a can or bottle to a particular off-licence. I am sure it is possible. It is done to an extent in some places. I am sure it is also possible to get around it quite easily. As is so often the case with such matters, it is the reputable operators who will co-operate, while those who are not will not. We will certainly examine that as something that we could perhaps add to the proposed Bill if it is possible, because, intuitively, it makes sense. I am aware that some shops in my constituency have been caught for selling alcohol to those below age and really only got a slap on the wrist. In my view, the sanctions have not been satisfactory.
On sports sponsorship, what is intended is not only to put the existing code on a statutory footing; it is to take the existing code, strengthen it and put it into regulations, which will then be enforced by the environmental health officers and can be strengthened as time goes on.It was a Government decision not to press ahead with an outright ban on sports sponsorship. Various options were on the table, including the possibility of putting it into law but not enacting it until the Minister for Health and the Minister with responsibility for sport were satisfied it was the right time to do so. It was not possible to get agreement on this, but we do have agreement that the situation will be reviewed within three years of enactment of the Bill, at which point we may be able to bring in further measures. I do not like comparing tobacco to alcohol because they are different, but if one took everything that has been done about alcohol over the past 20 years and put them into one Bill 20 years ago, it would never have been passed. Sometimes in politics we need to embrace the power of incrementalism and do 70% now, 10% a bit later, 5% after that and sooner or later we get to 100%. There will always be those in society who want to turn back the clock but we will leave that for another debate on another day.
On online advertising, I just spoke to my senior official in this area, Geraldine Luddy. We have been in touch with the Finnish authorities to better understand what they have done. We do not have the full information back from them yet. We have been in touch with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources because anything done about online or Internet advertising probably has to be done at European or international level. It is the world wide web after all. We want to understand what was done in Finland to see if we could do something similar here and incorporate it in the Bill.
I particularly welcome Senator Barrett's contrarian view. It is important that we have contrarian views in Parliament. I will take a look at his alternative statistics. I want to take a look at them to understand them for myself. Sometimes what can skew statistics is whether teetotallers are included. In Ireland, we have a lot of people who abstain entirely from alcohol. They make our figures look better than they really are. When account is taken of the 80% who drink, we probably do drink very heavily. As we have a younger population and more children, we need to ensure our statistics are age adjusted to take account of the fact that by and large people under ten and, hopefully, people under 15 do not drink. I agree with the Senator on the Mediterranean culture. Unfortunately, it is not possible to legislate to change the culture of this country to a Mediterranean one but perhaps it will come over time with a more responsible attitude towards alcohol.
On minimum unit pricing, I do not think it will be a boost to the industry. If it is a boost to the industry, it will have failed. If it brings in any additional tax revenue or VAT, it will also have failed. Minimum unit pricing is only successful if it reduces consumption. If it reduces consumption there will be no benefit for the manufacturers as they will be selling less product and there will be no benefit for the taxpayer either, at least not in terms of direct tax income, because if it works one would expect revenues to fall. This is why I am always very cautious about people suggesting that we ring-fence the additional money that will come from VAT on minimum unit pricing for other purposes, because if it actually works it should reduce consumption and therefore we will have less revenue from alcohol.
Senators O'Brien and Craughwell made the very valid point there should not be interference or funding by the drinks industry for any public health measure. I agree very strongly with this. This is the approach I will take. I have not been directly lobbied by the drinks industry since I have been in this position, and very little before it, although it may go about things in other ways through small retailers. We will have the same stuff once the Bill really lands and people understand how far it goes and start wondering about regulations. We will face all the usual stuff, that we are closing down rural Ireland and small shops. I expect the lobbying will come in a roundabout route as it often does although not this time from the pubs because they are largely supportive of it, but from sports, the arts and small stores. We need to be very wary of this and I would welcome the support of Senators in this regard.
I will return to the Seanad many times between now and the summer recess. I particularly look forward to returning early in the autumn session to bring this legislation before it. Depending on how things go, I may even bring it to the Seanad before the Dáil, with the agreement of the House. Let us try to get this through before Christmas.