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Irish Government announces measures to tackle alcohol harm

The Republic of Ireland Cabinet has signed off on proposals to reduce alcohol consumption and tackle alcohol misuse which will help Ireland to cut alcohol consumption to the OECD average by 2020 and reduce the harm associated with alcohol.

Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, said the proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 is part of a suite of measures designed to reduce alcohol consumption and limit the damage to the nation’s health, society and economy.

He said: “Most Irish adults drink too much and many drink dangerously. This has an enormous impact on our society and economy through greater illness and higher health costs, public order and violent offences, road traffic collisions, injuries and absence from work. It is also associated with many suicides and instances of sexual violence, domestic violence and child harm.”

Mr Varadkar continued: “This legislation is the most far-reaching proposed by any Irish Government. For the first time alcohol is being addressed as a public health measure which makes this a legislative milestone. It deals with all of the important aspects that must be addressed including price, availability, information and marketing.

“This matter has been debated for six years, since the establishment of the Working Group on a National Substance Misuse Strategy. A Bill has been on the cards since the Government decision in 2013. We have been talking about it for too long. It is time to take action.”

The proposals

The proposals are contained in the Heads of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, which was approved by Cabinet. They will form the basis of the Bill which will now be drafted. They include: 

  • Provisions to prevent the sale of very cheap alcohol, health labelling and warnings on products including calorie counts
  • New enforcement powers for Environmental Health Officers to police and enforce the separation of alcohol within stores, when Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 is commenced by the Department of Justice
  • Environmental Health Officers will also be empowered to police minimum unit pricing, health labelling, marketing and advertising and other measures of the Bill.

The following measures regarding marketing, advertising and sponsorship will be subject to a three-year review to gauge their effectiveness: 

  • Restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol from 2016 including a broadcast watershed on television and radio, with further restrictions due on cinema and outdoor advertising
  • It will be illegal to market or advertise alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children
  • Legal regulation of sports sponsorship for the first time. However, a complete ban on alcohol sports sponsorship was rejected.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 aims to reduce alcohol consumption in Ireland to 9.1 litres per person per annum (the OECD average) by 2020, and to reduce the harms associated with alcohol.

The Bill consists of 20 draft Heads and includes provisions for:

Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol Products

This will make it illegal to sell or advertise for sale alcohol at a price below a set minimum price. This is aimed at those who drink in a harmful and hazardous manner and is designed to prevent the sale of alcohol at very cheap prices. The minimum price will be set at a level which evidence shows will reduce the burden of harm from alcohol. It will be set through secondary legislation (regulation) in consultation.

Health Labelling of Alcohol Products

‘Standard Drink’ or units are widely misunderstood by the general public. The Health Research Board, National Alcohol Diary Survey concluded that the Irish population underestimate the amount that they drink, reporting only 39% of their general alcohol consumption.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 provides that labels on alcohol products will contain: 

  • Health warnings and advice (including for pregnancy)
  • The amount of pure alcohol as measured in grams
  • The calorie count

Under the Bill, on-licence holders (e.g. pubs, restaurants) are obliged to provide this information to customers in relation to alcohol products sold on draught or in measures e.g. pints, glasses of wine and measures of spirits. Health warnings and advice will also be included on all promotional material.

The Department plans to conduct primary research e.g. through focus groups to inform health labelling to ensure clarity and efficacy of message.

New Enforcement Powers for Environmental Health Officers

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 will be enforced by Environmental Health Officers. Provisions to be enforced include those in respect of: 

  • Structural separation of alcohol from other products under section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 when it is commenced
  • Minimum unit pricing
  • Health labelling
  • Regulations relating to the sale, supply and consumption of alcohol products under section 16 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 (to restrict advertising, promoting, selling or supplying alcohol at reduced prices or free of charge)

Regulation of Advertising and Marketing of Alcohol

The Public (Health) Alcohol Bill will make it illegal to market or advertise alcohol in a manner that is appealing to children. It provides for the making of regulations regarding the marketing and advertising of alcohol and includes provisions, inter alia, for restrictions on broadcast marketing and advertising, cinema advertising, outdoor advertising, print media and the regulation of sponsorship by alcohol companies. It also provides for controls on the content of alcohol marketing and advertising.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s ‘General Communication Code’ will be amended to reflect the requirements of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 in relation to the marketing and advertising of alcohol and television and radio.

The existing Code of Practice for Sponsorships by Drinks Companies will be put on a legal footing with enforcement powers and penalties.

The provisions in relation to the marketing and advertising will be reviewed after 3 years.