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North Belfast in the early 1970s was unsafe; especially for denim-clad teenagers visiting areas with opposing political and religious views. But the opportunity to see a band named Rat (yes, really) at a dodgy venue was tempting. For our pre-gig libation one of us, whose voice had broken, swaggered into a breeze-block built pub, and paid around €2 at today’s prices for two bottles of ‘scrumpy’.
Cheap Belfast scrumpy comprised the dregs of depleted beers, wines and liqueurs decanted from their original containers into empty Martini bottles and sold to underage customers in the city’s less salubrious areas. We imbibed this brutal cocktail in an alleyway, raucously anticipating the evening ahead, but failing to register the arrival of several Nurks, members of a notorious north Belfast gang. As life lessons go, sprinting hard up the Cliftonville Road with a tummy (temporarily) full of toxic scrumpy − and eyes bright with fear − was a salutary one.
One outcome of this, and too many similar experiences, was the realisation that cheap alcohol fuels cheap dreams. I was able to confirm this time and again in my working-class neighbourhood, where tough circumstances often brought out the life-enhancing best in people, but cheap alcohol brought out the worst.
Another outcome was that to this no-brainer of the early 1970s it was a no-brainer to support the idea of minimum unit pricing (MUP). So when the Scottish Parliament sought MUP to help address some of the health and social havoc wrought by cheap alcohol it had my eager endorsement. The Parliament introduced the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 to ensure that retailers in Scotland would not sell alcohol below a statutorily determined MUP, currently set at 50 pence/unit of alcohol. Happily, on 15 November 2017 the UK Supreme Court quashed a legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association and the European Spirits Organisation, ruling that the 2012 Act does not breach EU law and that MUP “is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
Indeed it is, and when the Institute of Alcohol Studies (www.ias.org.uk) gave an Irish perspective in the wake of the judgment, it cited Alcohol Health Alliance Ireland, which called on the Taoiseach and Minister for Health to “urgently progress” the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, one aim of which is to reduce the average annual alcohol consumption in Ireland from 11 litres to 9.1 litres/person by 2020. Minister for Health Simon Harris welcomed the passage of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill through all stages in the Seanad in December and plans to bring it to the Dáil shortly.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, when he was Minister for Health, was quoted as saying: “Statistics show 88 people die in Ireland every month due to alcohol. And there are twice as many deaths from alcohol as due to all other drugs.”
In 2016, when Cousins et al considered the ‘Potential Impact of Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol in Ireland: Evidence from the National Alcohol Diary Survey’ in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism (2016, 51: 734−740) they concluded: “The introduction of a MUP in Ireland is likely to target those suffering the greatest harm and reduce alcohol-attributable mortality in Ireland.”
But Ross MacMathúna, Director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), remains unenthusiastic, opining in the wake of the UK Supreme Court judgment that MUP “will drive shoppers back over the border to do their shopping as there has been no agreement with Northern Ireland on concurrent implementation”.
Yes, there has been no agreement with Northern Ireland thus far, but it’s worth considering John Mulgrew’s report in the Belfast Telegraph (16 November 2017) headed: ‘Northern Ireland drinks industry in call to follow Scots on minimum booze price’. Mulgrew quoted Tom McCusker, Managing Director of C&C Group Ireland, which produces cider, beer, wine and soft drinks, who welcomed the UK Supreme Court decision, noting that C&C Group Ireland had been a “strong and vocal supporter of minimum unit pricing, as progressive legislation that will promote and encourage a responsible relationship with alcohol in society”. Mulgrew also observed: “Colin Neill, Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster, said a new Executive ‘or in its absence the UK Government’ should follow suit.”
But were a biscuit to have been awarded for insulting the intelligence of the very people whose custom is sought by the ABFI, it would surely have been taken by this insight offered by MacMathúna: “The proposals on structural separation and how alcohol is displayed in shops undermines sensibilities of people, and is a true example of nanny-state gone mad.” It’s not so much the display of alcohol in shops that undermines the sensibilities of people; it’s drinking it in the first place, and the (now watered down) proposals on structural separation and the display of alcohol are a true example of what the State ought to be doing.
There are always merchants ready to promote the commercial desirability of cheap booze – the type of booze, moreover, that many drinks company executives wouldn’t have in the house – to a public that is apparently eager and waiting to be told what is good for it. As long as there are such self-interested merchants it is vital to have governments that are prepared to ask ‘What is our degree of responsibility towards others?’ and whose ministers stand ready to take measures that protect public health.