On the 4th of January, this year minimum alcohol pricing was brought into effect in Ireland. Commonly called Minimum Unit Pricing, this type of legislation sets a base price that alcohol must be sold for. The legislation targets low price, high alcohol content beverages with the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, saying in a press release on 4th of January, ‘This measure is designed to reduce serious illness and death from alcohol consumption and to reduce the pressure on our health services from alcohol-related conditions.’

While premium brands and regular pub prices are unlikely to be affected by the new law, cheap supermarket offers and low cost, high alcohol content beverages are expected to see steep rises in cost.  Since the rules came into force, a bottle of vodka cannot be sold for less than €20.71, a bottle of wine cannot cost less than €7.40 and cans of beer with an ABV of 4.3% must be priced at €1.70. 

According to a Department of Health press release, this addition to the Public Health (Alcohol) Act is ‘designed to reduce the harms caused by the misuse of alcohol and to delay the initiation of alcohol consumption by children and young people.’  There is currently a €1.2 billion a year cost to the Irish health system from alcohol-related treatment, under the new rules there will be an increase to tax income from VAT at 23% rather than a duty increase, thus all of the increased prices would have been returned to the state.  

In addition, the government has not announced any increase in the funding for alcohol abuse treatment services, nor any specific actions to delay the age at which people start drinking other than increasing the cost of drinks. The government seems to be utilising Minimum Unit Pricing as its solution to managing alcohol abuse rather than creating tangible support systems that can manage those that suffer from an illness from alcohol consumption. 

According to an Alcohol Action Ireland 2021 report, there are currently only 19 inpatient detoxification beds in the country, with a further 127 beds run by charitable organisations or religious groups. These beds are not specifically targeted towards alcohol addiction and are also used by patients requiring detox treatment for other forms of addiction.  The same report estimates the number of people seeking treatment for alcohol dependency could be as high as 25,000.  Treatment service providers in the Alcohol Action report highlighted the lack of mental health services for those seeking treatment for alcohol dependency which they found was hampering patient recovery.

In its most up to date statistics, the HSE estimates 10,800 people in Ireland are currently waiting to see a psychologist, with over half of those waiting for more than a year.  The government has recently allocated €34 million in increased funding for mental health services to address this issue, but the HSE has not released any further information on waiting lists since the funding was announced.

Alcohol has been reported as a contributing factor in 97% of public order offences recorded by Gardai in their PULSE system, public order offences cover a wide range of crimes including violent assaults, threats of violence as well as disturbing the peace.  While alcohol is a contributing factor to these crimes and is a noticeable side effect of Ireland’s drinking culture, a report on Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing found that setting a minimum price had ‘minimal impact on the levels of alcohol-related crime, disorder and public nuisance reported in Scotland.’

Professor Jon Bannister speaking about the findings of Manchester Metropolitan University 21 months after the introduction of MUP stated ‘if crime did reduce, it has done so at a scale that the evaluation could not identify.’  This was despite other research finding a 7.8% reduction in alcohol sales across Scotland.

It will take some time for the outcome of Ireland’s new alcohol pricing to become apparent, it will also be difficult to measure.  Unlike Scotland, which commissioned a comprehensive series of studies at the introduction of minimum unit pricing, the Irish government has not introduced any new reporting on the impact of the legislation.  The new rules are set to be reviewed in 2025.

Malachy Rynne – Politics Writer