Minimum pricing: Puritans and health zealots find another stick to beat drinkers with

Pubs and their drinkers have suffered badly in the pandemic - and now they want to charge moderate and responsible drinkers even more for a tipple, says John Dolan
Minimum pricing: Puritans and health zealots find another stick to beat drinkers with

The real losers of minimum pricing will be ordinary, decent occasional tipplers, says John Dolan

PURITANISM has been described as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be having a good time.

In which case, the puritans among us have been a very happy bunch for the past 20 months.

We’ve been locked up in our own homes for much of that time, and fun has been off the agenda — restrictions and closures of pubs and restaurants, theatre, cinema, and sport.

That infamous puritan Oliver Cromwell would be proud.

Yes, these are heady times indeed for the modern-day Irish puritans and their kindred spirits, the health zealots. In particular, you sense they get a perverse kick out of the fact the pubs have been shut and then suffered restrictions for so long.

God alone knows when they will reopen fully again — once the number of Covid numbers worldwide falls into single figures and hell freezes over, you suspect, if some of them had their way.

Listening to NPHET, you sometimes wonder if the real virus isn’t ‘2019-nCoV’, but a terrifying and deadly combination of malt, barley, hops and yeast.

Even when the pubs first closed, and lockdowns began, there were all sorts of dire warnings about people drinking too much at home.

But the puritans needn’t have worried: it emerged early on in the pandemic that alcohol consumption in Ireland had decreased by 6.5% in a year. You would think this news would have our nannies jumping for joy... but not when Zero Alcohol, rather than the odd pint of plain, is your only man.

No, the report came with some stark warnings: Ireland still ranks ninth among OECD countries in terms of alcohol consumption, and eighth in the world when it comes to monthly binge drinking.

The Health Research Board, while begrudgingly admitting alcohol consumption levels here had plateaued since 2013, soberly warned us that alcohol consumption was “significantly higher” than the government’s 2020 target of no more than 9.1 litres of alcohol per person a year.

Ah, yes, Government health targets. Always just out of reach...

But not to worry, because this week the Government found another stick to beat moderate drinkers with, when the Cabinet, after years of threats, brought in the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol.

Taking effect from January 1, 2022, this will enable the State to set the lowest price at which alcohol can be sold, based on how much alcohol a product contains, so the more units in a bottle, the higher the price.

Under its plan, the cheapest bottle of wine will cost €7.75, compared to €3.99. A 700ml bottle of supermarket gin or vodka — which could be bought for about €13 — will cost at least €20.71. The cheapest 440ml can of lager will be €1.32. It’s essentially a Puritan’s Charter.

While Ireland is slipping down the table of alcohol consumption, we remain top dogs in one area: Our alcohol is among the dearest in the EU... and now they are doing away with the reasonably priced stuff?

All this on top of the spoilsport move a year ago to end discount offers for alcohol, and the edict to cordon off drinks sections in supermarkets, making people buying booze feel like pariahs.

Slainte, indeed!

A study a few years ago found Ireland’s alcohol prices were a whopping 174% of the EU average. The next highest were Finland (139%), Sweden (127%) and Denmark (123%). At the other end of the scale, Bulgaria was at just 56% of the average.

This variation is mainly due to differences in taxation — the amount siphoned from every mouthful of beer, wine and spirits sold in the land and spewed into the Government’s coffers. A tax take that will only increase when minimum pricing is introduced. Quelle surprise!

Here, we pay 80 cents excise tax on a glass of wine, in France they pay 1 cent. We pay ten times more excise tax on a pint of Irish-brewed beer than they do in Germany. We pay €11.90 excise tax on a bottle of whiskey, in Italy it’s €2.90.

Lads, they’re draining us hand over and fist — and it’s still not enough for the puritans.

The Support Your Local campaign — a group representing Irish publicans, restaurants, hotels, off-licences and drinks suppliers — has been urging the Government to reduce excise duty, which they say is crippling the industry and threatening to impact on jobs and tourism amidst a devastating pandemic.

You don’t say.

The price of a pint, or a glass of wine, is already a rip-off. Now they want to take away the cheap options?

You can see why politicians are anxious to swell the tax take while, of course, solemnly underlining their positions as nannies with the good of the nation at heart.

Its a win-win for them.

But it’s a no-win situation for the poor, bled-dry consumer.

The politicians claim there is a strong argument for legislating against cheap alcohol. They say there is a direct correlation between off-licence and supermarket deals and people getting off their heads on a daily basis. They say minimum pricing will reduce alcoholism.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that alcoholism is not an issue, but this is simply not the solution.

I have sadly known my fair share of alcoholics and none would have been put off by a price tag. They would keep buying drink and sacrifice other items.

The experts also say this move will help to reduce excessive drinking in the home, which increased during the pandemic.

Well, of course there was more drinking at home when all the pubs shut!

Of course, these measures will not affect those politicians who would happily purchase a €30 bottle of wine without blinking — sure, why would they target the wealthiest in society when they can soak ordinary, hard-working people instead?

There is a strong argument against minimum pricing. It goes like this: We already have sky-high prices for our alcohol and it hasn’t stopped our politicians wringing their hands about alcohol consumption per head, has it?

The real losers here will be ordinary, decent occasional tipplers like you and I. 

We drink sensibly, we drink responsibly, we don’t have a problem. Yet we are going to face large dents in our weekly bills thanks to this holier-than-thou move.

Cheers for that.

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