Ireland is pushing for some of the most draconian alcohol retail laws in the EU to crack down on heavy drinking.
A proposal now up for debate would require supermarkets to segregate alcohol from other products, potentially in separate rooms. Smaller shops would have to conceal booze in cupboards or behind curtains — earning the measures the nickname of the “beer burqa.”
The measures would turn the homeland of Guinness and Jameson into an even tougher retail market for liquor companies than the notoriously strict Nordic states, such as Finland, where the state is the only entity allowed to sell spirits and only people over 20 can buy strong liquor.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a former general practitioner, is pressing for the Public Health Alcohol Bill to take effect by October 31. It faces a bumpy ride through both chambers of Ireland’s parliament, which makes approval unlikely this year. However, it is expected to eventually become law even with some modifications.
“Ireland needs to change its damaging attitude to alcohol. There’s a huge difference between having a drink on occasion with friends and indulging in regular binge drinking,” he said while serving as health minister two years ago, after the government introduced the legislation. “The costs are huge: from the damage to personal health and to society, absenteeism, the burden placed on the health services, public disorder and violence, traffic accidents and the associated mental health consequences.”
“We have a very ambivalent relationship with alcohol and unfortunately not a very healthy one” — Fine Gael Senator James Reilly
Retailers are among the leading opponents of the proposal, protesting the extra costs it will entail. Some bigger shops will have to go as far as erecting stores within stores, with extra walls and doors sealing off the alcohol shelves. Retail Ireland estimates store modifications alone would cost stores at least €70 million.
“Our concerns revolve around three words — not readily visible — which are of great concern to us as an industry,” said Thomas Burke, director of the industry group. “The current version is too onerous and difficult to implement — creating a store within a store.”
The other point of contention is a prescriptive proposal about where alcohol advertising billboards can be placed. Under the current draft of the legislation, alcohol advertisements would be banned within 200 meters of any daycare center, school or public park, which some view as a threat to tourism. Distillery and brewery tours are big business: The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, on the site of the St. James’s Gate Brewery where they make the famous stout, is the country’s most popular tourist attraction.
Some estimates say Irish media would lose €20 million in advertising revenue as a result of the bill.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is a former general practitioner and health minister for the country | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
In addition, bottles of alcohol would have to include a cancer warning. An EU proposal on nutrition and ingredient labeling for alcoholic beverages has dwindled into a voluntary effort by the industry, which has until early next year to come up with a proposal.
The legislation proposes minimum alcohol prices as well, also in an attempt to curb drinking.
While the legislation has the support of Fianna Fáil, the main opposition party, the proposal has divided Varadkar’s ruling Fine Gael, which is traditionally seen as more pro-business.
The Irish Senate, where the bill is now being debated, is trying to overcome objections about the harm to business. Senators expect the measures to pass into law, but there are intense discussions over how far they should go.
Fine Gael Senator James Reilly, a former health minister, argued that Dublin had to act because more than 1,000 people die each year from alcohol-related illness, at a cost to the health care system of more than €1.5 billion a year.
“We have a very ambivalent relationship with alcohol and unfortunately not a very healthy one,” Reilly said. He acknowledged the importance of Ireland’s drinks sector — which generated €1.4 billion in exports last year — but said it was the “abuse, misuse and overuse of alcohol we are trying to guard against.”
The industry argues that the bill addresses a problem it is already tackling.
Colm Burke, a senator from Fine Gael and the senate spokesperson on health, agreed on the need for minimum prices and stressed that the Irish suffer from alcohol-related illnesses, such as kidney damage, that were simply not a problem 25 years ago.
But in Senate debates, Fine Gael member Paudie Coffey stressed that the measure should target only large retailers. Fellow Fine Gael Senator Gabrielle McFadden expressed concerns over the labels classifying alcohol as a cancer risk.
Given the splits shown in the debate, the rules face a winding path to ratification. After the Senate, the laws will pass to the lower house, or Dáil, before looping back for final ratification in the upper chamber.
The legislation proposes minimum alcohol prices as well, in an attempt to curb drinking | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The industry argues that the bill addresses a problem it is already tackling. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Irish annual alcohol consumption peaked in 2001 at 14.5 liters of pure alcohol per person, and dropped to an estimated 10.9 liters per person in 2015. According to the same data set, Brits drank an average of 9.5 liters per person in the same time frame while an average French person downed 11.5 liters.
“I am worried because I have met a lot of politicians who are enthusiastic about the sector in their constituencies but don’t think through the detailed consequences, which includes lost jobs and investment,” said Patricia Callan, director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland.
Coffey, one of the senators with concerns about the bill, argued in a Senate debate late last year that the bill should not “cause unintentional impacts on responsible consumers, of which there are many, and responsible retailers.”