Ireland: Minimum Unit Pricing – Tackling Alcohol Misuse

The Public Health (Alcohol) 2015 (Bill) was presented in late 2015 to tackle Ireland's ongoing problem with over-consumption and misuse of alcohol. The measures proposed by the Bill seek to reduce the per capita alcohol consumption to the OECD average of 9.1 litres, some two litres below our current levels. The main reforms relate to:

  • minimum unit pricing (MUP)
  • health labelling of alcohol products
  • increased regulation of advertising, marketing of and sponsorship by alcohol products
  • structural separation of alcohol products in mixed trading outlets

The Bill also empowers the Minister for Health to make regulations on any of these matters.

Minimum unit pricing

Section 10 of the Bill states as follows:

  • the minimum price per gram of alcohol will be 10 cent
  • the formula for calculating MUP is 10 cent multiplied by the quantity in grams of alcohol in a product, which equals the minimum price for that product

A person who sells an alcohol product at a price that is below the minimum price set by this Bill; or advertises or promotes the sale of an alcohol product at a price that is below the minimum price for that product, will be guilty of an offence. Certain exemptions are expected including the sale of alcohol products at tax-free shops to travellers departing the State and distribution by wholesale or free of charge.

Following his introduction of the Bill, then Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar advised that the Government would continue to pursue this measure through the legislative process. He remained convinced that MUP had a very important role to play in addressing the major public health challenge. The current Minister for Health, Simon Harris, recently advised that “if we are serious about showing political leadership on alcohol, rather than political platitudes, we need to get on with delivering this legislation.”

Labelling

Under Section 11 of the Bill, labelling of alcohol products must include:

  • the amount of pure alcohol as measured in grams
  • the calorie count
  • health warnings regarding the effects of consuming alcohol
  • details of a public health website to be set up by the HSE, which will give information on alcohol and related harms

The proposed use of health warning labels on alcohol has been questioned by certain interest groups. They argue that there is no evidence to prove that this measure reduces the consumption of alcohol. They also state that health warning labels on packaged alcohol products must be proportionate, measured and informative. A concern relating to the proposed use of grams in measuring alcohol content has also been voiced as it believed that this may confuse customers.

The introduction of labelling requirements would lead to companies having to create labels specific only to the Irish market. This could arguably create a barrier to trade – particularly for SMEs where the cost may influence their decision to trade in the Irish market.

Advertising

New restrictions on the advertising of alcohol products are proposed whereby specific information about the alcohol product will need to be contained in the advertisement.

Section 12(2) of the Bill states that a person shall not advertise an alcohol product unless the advertisement includes, in the prescribed form:

  • a warning on the danger of alcohol consumption
  • a warning on the danger of alcohol consumption when pregnant
  • a warning that informs of the link between alcohol and fatal cancers
  • details of a website, to be established and maintained by the Health Service Executive, providing public health information on alcohol consumption

Structural separation

The Bill provides for the separation of alcohol products and ads for alcohol products in mixed trade retail outlets. It states that the holder of an off-licence must ensure, no later than two years after the commencement of this legislation, that ads for alcohol products and the actual alcohol products for sale are exclusively confined to a single area in the premises to which the off-licence is attached. The Bill states that the area must be separated from the rest of the premises by a physical barrier. Customers should not have to pass through this area to buy non-alcohol products. Only alcohol-related products may be sold in this area. As an alternative, alcohol products may be stored in a unit behind the counter at one point of sale area only. The products cannot be visible from the storage unit when closed and no advertisements for alcohol products may be affixed to the storage unit.

Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has indicated that he will give small and rural outlets an exemption on blocking off or covering up alcohol products. He confirmed there will be an amendment to try and “mitigate against that burden for small shops”.

Consequences of not complying with this legislation

If a person is found guilty of an offence under the various sections, they will be liable to pay substantial fines and/or jail time under section 7.

For example:

  • selling below the legal minimum price on indictment – a fine up to €250,000 and/or up to 3 years in prison
  • sale of an alcohol product which does not comply with labelling requirements on indictment – a fine up to €100,000 and/or up to 2 years in prison
  • if the breach is continued after being convicted, the person shall be liable for a fine of €2,000 per day.

Conclusion

The Bill is in the very early stages of legislative approval, having completed the second stage of review in late 2015. It is currently at Committee Stage. Minister Harris has signalled that the Bill is a significant focus for the Government. A decision has also been made to align the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing with Northern Ireland, but the Government would have to consider it further if political stalemate continues in the North.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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