Controversy Over the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill

by Quinn Kanner
The Irish Wine Association worries that the bill's provisions will cause a more limited variety of wines to be available in Ireland. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Debate continues over the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in the Dail after it was introduced on February 6—more than two years after it was initially presented in the Seanad.

Professor Frank Murray, chair of Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, said: “It is time to put this important life-saving legislation on the statute books. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is a reasonable and pragmatic way to protect our children, to ease the pressure on our health services and to support a healthier and safer society for everyone.”

If passed, the bill will put in place:

  • a minimum pricing policy;
  • mandatory labels including the quantity in grams of alcohol, the kilojoule and calorie counts and warnings about the danger of alcohol consumption, the danger of alcohol consumption while pregnant and the link between alcohol and cancer;
  • limitations on the contents of advertisements, consisting of a list of what is allowed to be included in ads;
  • limitations on where alcohol can be advertised; and
  • limitations on sponsorships.

However, many in the alcohol industry worry that the measures are too harsh and that there isn’t adequate evidence supporting their effectiveness.

Irish Wine Association chair Jim Bradley said: “In my 40 years working in the business, I have never witnessed a government attempting to introduce such a damaging piece of legislation.

“While the wine industry fully supports the objectives of the Alcohol Bill—to tackle harmful drinking and underage consumption—it is important that any measures that are introduced are evidence-based.

“The evidence that the Department of Health has presented on the Alcohol Bill’s effectiveness to tackle alcohol misuse is questionable at best.”

For example, the proposed advertising limitations don’t allow for any storylines other than the process of producing the alcohol and require descriptions of the product’s flavour, colour and smell to be “objective”.

Patricia Callan, director of Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), said: “According to economist Jim Power, the advertising provisions in the Alcohol Bill are based on similar French legislation.

“In France, strict advertising laws have had little impact on addressing the serious problem of young people drinking, indicating that they may not work here.”

Members of the alcohol industry also worry about the effect the mandatory labels will have on Irish alcohol both in Ireland and abroad.

The Irish Whisky Association issued a statement saying “the proposed restrictions on advertising and labelling are not based on evidence and will have an unfair and disproportionate impact on the competitiveness of small distilleries, the global reputation of our industry and the capacity of Irish whiskey visitor centres to advertise and promote their tourism offering”.

Since no other country has mandatory cancer warnings on alcohol, the ABFI worries the label might apply a stigma against Irish products sold abroad.

Director Callan said: “It gives a clear advantage to our competitors abroad, who are not required to carry such labels.

“The drinks industry is committed to promoting moderate drinking and encouraging responsible choices about alcohol.

“However, we believe that a focus on one health issue alone does not give a full or accurate picture to help consumers make an informed choice about their drinking.”

According to a 2017 survey by Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, 92% of people agree that alcohol consumption is too high, and 74% support government intervention to reduce consumption.

While the Irish Wine Association, Irish Whisky Association and ABFI all indicated their support of the goal of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill—to curb underage and harmful drinking—they do not feel that there is proper evidence supporting the measures proposed in the bill and worry the bill will disproportionately harm the alcohol industry.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will continue to be discussed in the Dail this Wednesday evening.

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