The Oireachtas Health Committee is due to launch a report soon that will propose the government introduce a law to ensure that there is a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Much is being made of the fact that this will mean you won’t be able to buy a single bottle of wine for less than a tenner anywhere in the state. Compared to many other European states, the price of alcohol in bars is already ridiculous. The Vintner’s Association must love this. They’ve been banging on about how they’re losing business to people drinking at home for a long time, so an Oireachtas committee has decided to help their businesses by trying to prevent people from doing that by making it more expensive under the guise of a health initiative.
Despite the fact that Alcohol Action have been banging this drum as a health initiative for quite a while it’s painfully obvious to anyone who isn’t after necking a bottle of wine that using price to control behaviour unfairly penalises those on low incomes. There can be no equality of outcome in this situation.
Well-meaning but misinformed lobbyists have consistently put forward lines which are untrue such as “Minimum pricing, by definition, impacts on those that drink the most.” Clearly this is incorrect – the impact will be felt by those on lower incomes. The subtext of the statement from Alcohol Action is that those that drink the most are poor – and they must be stopped from drinking. They must be saved from themselves. Increasing the price of pints wouldn’t have stopped TDs from drinking and then getting up to vote or speak on some of the most important Bills in the history of the current cabinet. Ensuring that a bottle of wine is more than €10 would not have stopped former TD Jim McDaid from getting behind the wheel of the car while absolutely hammered and tearing up the wrong side of the dual carriageway on his way home from the a race meeting at Punchestown. Nor would the cost of alcohol per unit have stopped other political figures such as Liam Lawlor, Labour’s Michael Bell, Senators David Norris, Joe O’Toole and Deputy Ruairí Quinn from being convicted of drink driving. That isn’t really how drink driving works. I hate cultural stereotypes that position all Irish people as pissed up, because they aren’t correct and are the product of anti-Irish racism of Victorian England. In saying that, Ireland is probably one of the only places where you can be convicted of being drunk behind the wheel and still have a reasonable run at a presidential election or subsequently hold the position of senior government Minister. Our attitudes to alcohol are simply different to other places, and making alcohol more expensive isn’t going to change the practice of well-paid middle class parents in south county Dublin who put Cabáiste and Quinoa to bed at night and then neck two or three bottles of wine. That leads to long term negative impacts on an individual’s health and the healthcare system – but that’s ok because it’s not poor people doing it. The cost of the drink isn’t the issue, it’s actually the mind of the people drinking it and the culture that surrounds them. Bags of coke don’t come cheap but that doesn’t stop people snorting Dickhead Dust to beat the band in certain circles. The price, or legality for that matter, is irrelevant.
Rightly or wrongly, drinking is a culturally accepted social past-time in Ireland. The Guinness toucan is an internationally recognised symbol of Irish cultural experience and we play up to it. We celebrate writers like John B. Keane and Brendan Behan whose grá for a jar is well known. Yes, alcohol contributes to a lot of terrible aspects of Irish society; Dublin is like a warzone after 3pm on St. Patrick’s Day; we’re a pretty depressed population and drink doesn’t particularly help that; and our A&Es are overrun with people getting charcoal stuffed down them at the weekends when staff and hospitals are already near breaking point. But increasing costs isn’t suddenly going to mean that there’ll be less vomit on O’Connell Street early on a Sunday morning. It just means that when someone rings in to complain on Joe Duffy, a government Minister can say “Well, it’s not our fault! We did something!” and some people will have a bit less in their pockets to pay for their breakfast rolls in Centra that afternoon.
Budget day always brings a collective whinge from the nation when there’s an increase in the price of alcohol, but adding a set rate per unit of alcohol simply stops those on lower incomes from engaging in what is a cultural norm without having the evidence to back up whether this is going to have a significant public health benefit for those you want to target. The definition of poverty is if people’s income is so inadequate they are precluded from engaging in activities and having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society. Why shouldn’t someone who goes out and is exploited by doing a week’s work on Jobbridge for €50 quid on top of their dole and the luxury of keeping the social welfare off their back have a drink of something cheap at home at the end of it? Those drinkers aren’t really the problem but they’re the ones who will pay for it.
The problem of alcohol consumption in Ireland, like drug abuse, isn’t going to be solved overnight, and this is just the latest proposal that’s well intended but isn’t going to change anything. Headshops were closed down and people are still doing yokes. The price of drink will go up, and government TDs will still be in the Dáil chamber three sheets to the wind. The more things change the more they stay the same and a policy that looks like it has emanated from the mind of someone with a superficial grasp of Leaving Cert economics won’t even scratch the surface of deeply embedded social problems.