EXPLAINER: What's the fuss over the proposed changes to alcohol laws?

Labelling and pricing are set to be affected by new legislation - but other EU countries have raised objections

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File photo. Image: RollingNews.ie

A Government bill proposing radical new changes to the way is alcohol is sold and labelled has come under renewed scrutiny after it emerged 11 EU countries have raised objections to the legislation.

While the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has come under scrutiny in Europe, the proposals have also been welcomed by many groups and experts here in Ireland.

What exactly is proposed in the Bill, and what has the response been to the controversial proposed legislation?

What is the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill? 

The Bill was approved last December and is currently at the second stage in the Seanad.

The legislation includes provisions to prevent the sale of very cheap alcohol, and aims to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres per person per annum by 2020.

Some of the main provisions in the bill include:

  • A minimum unit price on alcohol products of 10c per gram of alcohol
  • Structural separation of alcohol products from other products in shops - so that it is not sold like a normal groceries product
  • A ban on price-based promotions and tougher restrictions on targeted promotions such as 'happy hours'
  • Health warnings and calorie labelling on alcohol products, as well as warnings in pubs and off-licences
  • Regulation of advertising, marketing of alcohol and sponsorship, with criminal sanctions set to apply for the first time

Under the new rules, a bottle of wine would cost around €8.60, while a bottle of beer would cost €1.29.

A bottle of supermarket own-brand vodka could more than double in price from €13 to €28.

Meanwhile, alcohol labels would have to include the amount of pure alcohol as measured in grams and the calorie count.

If the legislation is passed, labels will also be required to display health warnings and a link to a public health website set up by the HSE.

The HSE would also carry out inspections and issue penalties for non-compliance with the proposed rules.

The new programme for government included a commitment to passing the bill.

Objections

France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Spain have all raised concerns about the Bill.

The 11 EU countries - including some of Europe's biggest beer and wine producers - are worried about its possible effect on trade.

Ireland has until the end of July to issue a response to each member state.

Meanwhile, officials in the Department of Health are continuing to assess the implications of a European Court of Justice judgment on minimum alcohol pricing, which is also included in the bill. 

Last December, the court ruled that a Scottish plan to introduce a minimum unit price would breach EU law.

Paul Skehan, Director General of SpiritsEurope, says the Government is trying to suggest that all drinking is bad for your health.

He told Newstalk Lunchtime: "If you drink and get behind the wheel of a car; if you drink when you pregnant; if you drink when you're underage - if you drink in all those circumstance it's going to be bad for you.

"But if you drink a couple of glasses a day of whatever it is, your favourite tipple, then no it's not bad for you. What the Government is now proposing in this is that consumption per se is bad - it's not," he added.

Support

A leading medic says the Government has to push on with plans to put health warnings on alcohol products.

Dr Chris Luke, Consultant in Emergency Medicine at Cork University Hospital, says the measure is needed to deal with the crisis in our hospitals.

He told Newstalk Breakfast: "A glass of wine has the same amount of calories as a donut. That has to be on a label.

"Although there's always cries of 'nanny-state-ism', the problem is that the State's capacity to provide healthcare is seriously under threat because of lifestyle issues such as obesity and alcohol," he added.

Alcohol Action Ireland also welcomed the publication of the bill last year.

It said it is "a landmark piece of legislation and a critical first step in addressing one of our most significant public health problems".

The group pointed out that alcohol misuse claims three lives every day in Ireland and places a huge burden on our health services - costing the State an estimated €3.7bn per year.

The Government has continued to pledge its support to the Bill.

Dublin MEP Brian Hayes said that he was concerned the intervention of other EU countries could delay the legislation.  

"Member states must be able to react to ongoing health concerns, which are particular to those member states, in a determined and coordinated way," he said.

He added he believes there is 'substantial support' around the country for the Government to do something about binge drinking.