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Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015

  Deputy Declan Breathnach: What was once referred to as uisce beatha, the water of life, now seems to be demoted to being uisce an bháis.  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill.  There is an issue of harmful drinking in Ireland, as all Members are aware.  We are told that up to three people die every day in this country as a result of the abuse of alcohol.  The Bill introduces minimum unit pricing and the structural segregation of alcohol from other products in supermarkets and other retail outlets, provides for detailed health warnings, including information on links between alcohol and cancer, on labels and imposes restrictions, including a 9 p.m. broadcasting watershed before which alcohol advertisements cannot be aired.  I welcome any measures to tackle alcohol abuse, change our drinking culture and discourage the scourge of underage drinking.

As the Acting Chairman knows, I am from Dundalk, which is very close to the Border.  I agree with the intent behind the introduction of minimum unit pricing.  However, as I have said previously in the House, it will send thousands of people across the Border to purchase alcohol more cheaply.  A collaborative approach with the Northern Ireland authorities should be taken in an attempt to introduce minimum pricing here, which should be matched with a similar regime in Northern Ireland.

As regards the separation of alcohol products, I welcome its objective of restricting access to alcohol products by making them less visible.  However, the many businesses that will be affected and which are struggling at the best of times should not be unduly required to provide additional finance or staff in order to implement the measure.

On the labelling and advertising aspects of the Bill, although I understand that the aim is to provide consumers with health information on alcohol products, I have grave concerns, which have been voiced to me by craft brewers and distillers in my constituency.  There is broad agreement on the inclusion on labelling of nutritional information and a health warning regarding the consumption of alcohol when pregnant.  However, no country has introduced a mandatory cancer warning on alcohol products and in this respect the Bill goes too far.  It will have a huge impact on the smaller producers, distilleries and craft brewers of Ireland.  The Cooley Distillery is a very successful distilling operation in my constituency that directly employs more than 70 people and indirectly employs many more across the county.  It has invested €14 million in its site since purchasing it in mid-2012.  This investment has increased productivity, promoted sustainability and has protected and increased jobs.  The impact on the Cooley Distillery and similar enterprises is that there will be a perception that Scotch or American whiskey is less harmful to a person than Irish whiskey and our exports will, therefore, be affected if the cancer labelling measure is not restricted.  There are huge opportunities to export to Asia and the Middle East but our product will suffer compared with products from other jurisdictions if the proposed labelling requirements are implemented.  A focus on one health issue alone, namely, cancer, does not give a full or accurate picture to help consumers make an informed choice about their drinking.  What about the many processed foods and meats that have been proven to be carcinogenic but are not so labelled?  Will there be cancer health warnings on such products or only on alcohol?  The restrictions will damage smaller producers, which will not have the capacity of huge producers such as Diageo that will be quite capable of meeting the ensuing demands.

It is possible to go too far.  The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has stated that radon gas is the major carcinogen in this country.

Are we going to tell people who are experiencing problems with radon gas and having to take remediation measures that it is time to put a sign on the door warning people that they could be entering a carcinogenic environment?  I draw this comparison because I believe we can go too far.

In my constituency, the Teeling Whiskey Company operates out of what was the old Harp brewery in Dundalk.  We also have the Carlingford Brewing Company, the Listoke Distillery and Gin School, Jack Cody’s Brewery and the Dundalk Bay Brewing Company.  All of these small breweries and distilleries bring great benefits to the community, not just in the context of the sale and export of alcohol but also in terms of visitors who like to understand how the product is made.  With the labelling restrictions being proposed here and with the severe restrictions on advertising, I believe that these businesses will be disproportionately impacted upon.  Some of them may not survive.  This is the context in which we need to ensure a balanced approach in supporting the Bill.