My Opposition to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015

I sent this e-mail to six government TDs from the Kerry North-West Limerick, Kerry South, and Galway West constituencies, detailing my opposition to certain aspects of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 currently being considered by the government, which will see the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, among other measures.

I’m emailing you to express my concerns over the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill currently being considered by the Dáil. There has been much evidence presented to support the claim that higher prices for alcohol and tobacco will reduce consumption, and this is true, but it isn’t the full story.
I’m sure you have heard the standard arguments against the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol, such as that it is discriminatory to foreign products, and will harm French vineyards, which remains to be seen. I wish to raise a very different point that relates to the black market and to drugs. This is an area that I have been concerned about for quite a while, and it is an issue that I raised a few years ago when I represented Kerry Comhairle na nÓg on the Kerry Children’s Services Committee. What I have seen in recent years, as a result of increases in VAT and excise duties on alcohol in a number of budgets in this Dáil, is that young people, one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, and one of the groups most at risk of substance abuse, are being priced out of buying alcohol, and are instead turning towards drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and acid. While marijuana poses little, if any, threat in standard health terms, either in the short run or the long run, all three drugs pose significant risks in terms of crime and health in one form or the other. All three can trigger anxiety, paranoia and schizophrenia in users, and I have seen this happen to people around me. They also, perhaps more seriously, fuel the criminal underworld, allowing gangs to flourish, and we have seen far too much the damage that this can cause. It appears obvious to me, and many others, that setting a minimum price for alcohol will fuel the drug market, and give more customers to the black market.

If one of the aims is to encourage people to stop drinking excessively, and also to reduce public drunkenness, then we ought to look at at previous examples of highly priced alcohol. In the Scandinavian countries, where there is a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol in off-licences, alcohol was very highly priced in the 1980s. However, there were still extraordinarily high levels of street drinking. Why was this? The high prices encouraged home brewing, meaning that money wasn’t being spent in the alcohol industry, but alcohol was still being produced and consumed in an unregulated manner. Does this not defeat the purpose of minimum pricing while also further damaging family owned/run shops and pubs?

On top of this, instead of the State receiving the revenue from the increased prices, as would be the case if excise duties and VAT were raised further, it will be the retailers and producers who will do so. This is tax revenue that could be used to fund better education for young people on the harms of substance abuse, and also much needed mental health and addiction services.

Instead of the one-pronged approach of minimum pricing, which in reality causes various other problems relating to health, crime, addiction and SMEs, I feel it would be much better to take a three-pronged approach;

  • increase excise duties/VAT on alcohol products to both increase the price and collect more in tax revenue, so the additional revenue goes to the government rather than simply increasing the profit margin of suppliers/producers. This can be done because of the relatively inelastic demand for alcohol products.
  • legalise certain drugs such as marijuana, allowing for them to be regulated and taxed as is done in the Netherlands (it is actually the chemicals added to marijuana that causes harm, and this is what is regulated in the Netherlands). This protects users, takes the market out of the hands of criminal gangs, thus cutting down on drug related crime, and also brings in further tax revenue.
  • use this additional tax revenue from increased excise duties/VAT on alcohol and the tax from legalised drugs to fund education for young people on the dangers of substance abuse, to fund much needed mental health and addiction services which are lacking in many parts of the country, particularly in more rural areas, and also to fund better youth services so as to give young people activities to do which don’t necessarily involve alcohol and drug consumption. This involves recognising that alcohol as a consumer product is in competition with other, often illicit, substances, and also other highs, which may including highs from adrenaline (eg. from rock climbing, or go-karting).

I sincerely hope that you will take this into account, and I would appreciate if you raised this with the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, as this is quite a serious issue that will result in further, more serious problems down the line if not dealt with properly now.

Happy holidays and best regards,

Danny Rigg

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