THE SCOURGE OF CHEAP DRINK

7 February 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The measures announced by the Government to reduce the sale of cheap drink products as part of an initiative to limit the damage being visited upon the nation’s health by excess alcohol consumption are to be commended.

This country’s deeply ingrained ambivalence to the ubiquity of alcohol, in both its deep-rooted cultural and historical manifestations and its more recent emergence as a cynically exploited commercial magnet, militates greatly against effective social constraints that might tend to moderate, for fear of social disapproval, the behaviour of those inclined to excess.

Ours is not the café-style culture of the Continent where moderate consumption in convivial conditions is the accepted norm – and it is perhaps significant that attempts to introduce such a culture in this country a number of years back as an enhancement of our tourism appeal never managed to get more than desultorily off the ground.

Our relationship with alcohol is of a very different sort. The attractive dimensions of its image are promoted at all manner of communal celebrations and more sombre occasions – it is literally a presence from the cradle to the grave. It casts a smiling promotional face too on many festivals and public occasions of joyousness. By contrast, the deep misery and physical and mental harm it causes is mostly kept hidden away behind closed doors, and although sometimes the subject of short-lived awareness campaigns, this form of destruction goes largely unabated.

The cost to this country in health terms, as well as in productivity, is very difficult to gauge, but it is surely huge. As Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said this week, the talking about this has gone on far too long without a programme of concerted action being put in place by the Government, backed by the weight of legislation.

Among the new Bill’s most important provisions are controls on the sale of cheap drink – surely the greatest factor of exacerbation in the problems with alcohol that have grown rampant among our young people in particular. A policy of minimum unit pricing has been advocated for some time now, and the Minister appears convinced that this will effectively put an end to the widespread availability of sometimes very potent alcoholic beverages at prices pitched so low that they prey very particularly on the impressionable young and the temperamentally vulnerable to alcohol misuse.

If the new law works in this regard, it should make a positive contribution to reducing the prevalence of alcohol-related problems, particularly among teenagers who are now regularly presenting at treatment centres with symptoms of chronic alcohol addiction.

But for this dimension of the proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 to be effective, the other facets of the legislation must also address the way in which alcohol is marketed and displayed in all manner of retail outlets – even if cost is controlled, the power of advertising could counterbalance any positive contribution price restrictions might achieve.

This hints at the likely opposition that the proposed new legislation might attract from the drinks companies and the large multiple retailers. While there is certain to be widespread public welcome for these proposals, it would be unsurprising if there was not a great deal of covert lobbying put into operation between now and the Bill’s expected passage into law by the end of the year in order to amend and dilute some of the measures contained in it.

Our TDs and Senators would be shirking a serious public as well as moral duty if they were to allow themselves to be persuaded into extracting any of the teeth from what currently promises to be incisive legislation.

Also key to the success of the Minister’s initiative is for corresponding action to be implemented by the legislature in Northern Ireland. Some preliminary agreement to this end must surely have been reached, but it is of vital importance, particularly to our own circulation area and surrounding region, that the Northern authorities carry through with their undertakings. Otherwise a covert and thriving cross-Border trade in cheap alcohol would begin to flourish overnight.

Legislation is one thing of course – enforcement another. While the drinks industry has been fairly responsive to the pressure placed on it by the authorities of public health in the recent past, there will always remain a cynical minority in the various manifestations of this area of trade who will probe the new provisions for loopholes they can exploit. It is to be hoped that as the new Bill is further discussed, very clear indications will be given both of the penalties for infractions of the law, and what properly-resourced authorities will be there to ensure compliance.

The Gardaí already do a manful job of enforcement in such areas as the sale of drink to underage persons, as some recent high profile cases in our courts attest. But it will not be their job alone to make sure that all the requirements of the new law are being met – indeed, it may take some new independent regulatory body to make sure that what comes out of these proposals are not all talk and very little action.

But, with the will of our legislators and the backing of our health authorities, they should go some way to addressing one of this country’s very serious problems.

We might never change our drink culture – but perhaps, after a very long wait, we are going to see some effective measures to prevent as many people falling victims to it.

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