MICHAEL WOLSEY: A myth that has pushed up the price of drink
Average consumption of alcohol in Ireland has fallen over the past decade. It’s not much of a drop, nothing to get excited about, but the trend is down.
The World Health Organisation measures consumption of pure alcohol and its figures show that the difference in consumption between most European countries is quite small, about a litre a year.
On average, we consume more of the demon drink than Italians and Danes, less than the Germans and Czechs, about the same as the Spanish, the French and our neighbours in Britain.
That may come as a surprise to you, because, as a nation, we are constantly upbraided for our drinking by bodies such as Drinkaware and Alcohol Action, who have pushed the Government into a number of measures aimed at making the perfectly legal purchase of alcohol a bit more difficult.
Shops have been forced to fence off their beer, wine and spirits and exclude them from promotions such as voucher schemes and loyalty points. Since January 4, they have been obliged to enforce minimum pricing which, contrary to the claims of its supporters, does not apply only to very low-priced drinks.
The minimum price is imposed per gram of alcohol. It doesn’t hit products at the very top of the range, but it pushes up the price of many drinks that are widely enjoyed. A survey in the Irish Independent estimated that it will add more than €6 to the price of a bottle of Corley’s gin, €2 to a bottle of Power’s whiskey, €5 to the Smirnoff sold by Aldi and almost €23 to the 24-pack of Budweiser sold by SuperValu.
I doubt if this measure will curtail drinking. Some people will shop across the Border. Most of us will just spend a bit more of our money on alcohol. Since drink consumption has been falling anyway, we will never know for sure whether minimum pricing works
But, in any case, why is this the Government’s business?
We have a wide range of laws to regulate the sale of alcohol and punish any anti-social behaviour caused by drinking: laws against drink-driving, under-age drinking and being drunk and disordely. There is even a law against simply being drunk in a public place, although I cannot recall it being enforced.
So why does the Government feel the need for other measures, aimed not at anti-social behaviour but at changing our social habits?
It’s because we are always being told that Ireland has a uniquely serious problem with drink and we cannot be trusted to regulate our individual alcohol purchases. And that’s just not true.
Ireland is not an outlier. In every country that allows the sale of alcohol there is sometimes some degree of excessive
A few years ago I was invited, along with some other Irish journalists, on a tour of Swedish industry and we enjoyed wonderful hospitality at several boardroom dinners. At the end of the meal everyone was given a small glass of a fiery spirit called aquavit. The most senior of our hosts would make a speech of welcome and propose a toast “to our delightful guests'”. After a suitable reply, every one of the Swedes would make a little speech, ending with a toast and another glass of aquavit.
Swedes, who had been models of sobriety earlier in the day, became incredibly drunk. One man quite literally fell under the table.
They don’t fall under the table in Japan. But in Hiroshima I watched in amazement as tired businessmen, having consumed too much beer or sake, would slump down on the bar and go to sleep. I have seen Germans, on their way to work, drinking beer at 8am and (much more worrying) French truck drivers downing a quick brandy at the same hour.
When an attempt was made to introduce “dry January” to France, 42 sports stars, chefs and actors signed a letter protesting at this “Anglo-Saxon puritanical madness”.
And Claire Touzard, a Parisan who decided to give up alcohol, complained in a book she wrote about it, that “saying you are givingup drinking in France is like putting a bomb on the table. Nobody in France is sober.”
There is no reason why Ireland should emulate the bad habits of other countries. But there is no reason either for our constant self-criticism. Ireland is not an exceptionally heavy drinking country and the myth that it is should not be allowed to dictate our laws and regulations.