The Taoiseach has called on Northern Ireland to join the Republic in introducing a minimum unit price.
The call came after a government backbench MP told him that unilateral action – making cheap booze more expensive from next January – would lead to Southern “crowds” crossing the border to buy wholesale.
“This legislation is right, but at the wrong time,” said Fine Gael’s Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick. “If this legislation is to succeed, which we all want, it must be introduced at the same time on both sides.”
He added: “We are seven months away from the introduction of the minimum unit price next January. And I would like to appeal to the Northern Ireland Executive and all political parties in the North, as well as anyone with influence on the parties, to support a measure like this in Northern Ireland so that we have complete alignment.
There had been discussions between the two health ministries, he said, “and the indications given by the Northern Ireland Executive were that they were not considering this at all before 2023”. On the other hand, there had been an agreement between all parties in the Dáil as early as 2018.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the obvious reasons for the decision were that the sale of alcohol at lower prices was particularly harmful to children and young people.
“Some of the figures are quite appalling. Ireland, for example, has the highest level of excessive drinking among adolescents in the world at 61% for women and 58.8% for men, according to a global study on adolescent health, published in The Lancet in March 2019,” he said.
“In terms of impact on hospitalization and mortality, the cost of alcohol-related hospital discharges in 2012 was €1.5 billion. The estimated costs of alcohol-related absenteeism at work were €41 million in 2013. One in seven workers suffered from problems caused by drinking by others in 2015, including one in 20 who said he had to work overtime because of his co-workers’ drinking.
“There are wider issues in terms of hospitalizations. The number of hospitalizations entirely attributed to alcohol is now estimated to have increased by 94-94% between 1995 and 2018, from 9,420 to 18,348.”
From 2008 to 2017, there were 10,000 alcohol-related deaths, and the Heath Research Board believes that data is likely an underestimate of mortality, he said.
Alcohol was also killing people with cancer, the Taoiseach said.
“The National Cancer Registry estimates that at current levels of consumption, male cancer levels attributable to alcohol will increase in 2035 by 37% and female cancer cases by 110%. So there is a need to move forward on this.”
Mr Fitzpatrick said businesses in his hometown of Dundalk were very worried because cross-border booze travel would also involve grocery shopping and spending on other goods that would otherwise be spent in the south. He claimed drink prices in the South would be double those available in Northern Ireland in many cases.
“I fully support this legislation, but it is being introduced at the wrong time,” he said, echoing claims made last week to the parliamentary party Fianna Fáil.
“This will have devastating effects on local businesses, especially in border areas. This island had the opportunity to work together, and I think it’s a missed opportunity.
The Taoiseach replied: “I believe the Executive in the North should align themselves with this policy, and I would call on parties there to give it serious consideration – as it is designed to help young people and children and to avoid the exploitation of people below- cost of sale to create the type of consumption that it creates.
He added: “All studies on alcohol show that the harms of alcohol abuse are closely linked to the timing of initiation of alcohol consumption.
“The earlier you start drinking, the greater the likelihood of long-term problems later in life.
“And we know from tobacco and other areas that price matters, especially for children and young people. But yes, we will contact the authorities in the North and continue our engagement on this subject.