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Saturday 3 December 2016

'Booze tax' idea is a poor substitute for bottling sports' ads

The nanny state is about to give us another rap of her wooden spoon.

As the Government considers its new alcohol legislation, the Oireachtas Health Committee has recommended a 'booze tax' that would mean no bottle of wine can be sold for less than a €8.80.

This crude tactic might allow our politicians to slap themselves on the back but it will do nothing to address the complex underlying causes for Ireland's reputation as a nation of boozers.

Nobody can deny that we have a serious problem. While alcohol consumption fell steadily throughout the recession, recent excise figures showed a dramatic surge in the first quarter of 2015.

To quote just one shocking statistic, we knocked back almost 1.3m litres of spirits during January, February and March - an increase of 16.5pc over the same period last year.

Ireland is officially fourth in the international league table of alcohol abusers.

In fact that might not even do us full justice, since our unusually high percentage of teetotallers (almost 20pc) means everyone else is working harder to get the average up.

We also have an issue with the way many Irish people drink, abstaining from Monday to Thursday and then going on 48-hour benders - which has given us far greater alcohol-related social problems than countries such as France, who actually consume more.

So, the Government obviously needs to do something.

Hiking up alcohol price across the board, however, is a depressingly knee-jerk response that shows the Health Committee's lack of courage or imagination.

Its chief impact will be to punish the silent majority who do drink responsibly and resent being slapped with yet another tax as punishment for the reckless behaviour of others.

For a start, the Government is ignoring one awkward little fact. Ireland already pays more for alcohol than any other EU country except Finland, a staggering 70pc above the average.

CHALLENGE

Crippling excise duties have created the ludicrous situation where you can pay less for a bottle of Irish whiskey at JFK Airport in New York than you would at your local off-licence.

In other words, if price was the main factor then Ireland would have gone on the dry a long time ago.

The real causes are both cultural and psychological.

As any addiction counsellor can tell you, cutting off supply is a short-term solution at best - a far bigger challenge is to convince the patient that they do not actually need the substance in question.

During the last general election campaign Labour ran an infamous Tesco-style 'Every Little Hurts' ad that pledged not to raise the price of wine.

Making every bottle of vino at least €10 would not only be yet another broken promise, it would also highlight just how silly the concept of minimum cost units really is.

In case Health Minister Leo Varadkar has failed to notice, the gurriers who cause havoc in Dublin city centre every Saturday night are not tanked up on sauvignon blanc.

The main enemy in this regard is low-grade cider and beer, cans of which will still be accessible to anyone who really wants them, even if they are doubled in price.

Banning and taxing things is an easy option for any politician, but it almost always has unintended consequences.

The increasing cost of tobacco has created a huge black market that now accounts for roughly 25pc of all cigarettes sold.

After more than 30 years of a 'war on drugs', it is still hard to walk down O'Connell St without seeing a brazen heroin deal.

Meanwhile, the Government has quietly bottled out of plans to stop drinks' companies from sponsoring sports events.

That could have been a real game-changer in making alcohol less 'cool', as would an end to the practice of plonking pints of Guinness in front of visiting dignitaries such as President Obama. In short, we need policies that treat us as adults instead of just getting nanny to raid our wallets again.

Now that really would be something worth raising a glass to.

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