Minimum pricing is regressive and we must push back against it

Policymakers are counting on us acquiescing to this creeping classism

Gone are the golden days of cheap Karpackie cans and delightfully discounted wine. Minimum unit pricing (MUP) is here, and with relatively little fuss being kicked up by anybody, it looks like it’s here to stay. The introduction of a higher price floor for the sale of alcohol in Ireland came in early January of this year; backed by the HSE’s belief that it would “reduce the harm that alcohol causes” for the heaviest drinkers in the country. Now part of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, the validity of minimum unit pricing policy appears to be based on research carried out by the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group. Their work claims that alcohol consumption is expected to reduce by “almost 9% overall,” which is one of the main statistics touted publicly by the HSE. This appears to be a straightforward policy based on genuine concern for public health.

“Those who suffer from alcoholism, and those around them, will be hit hardest as the substance that they depend on becomes pricier.”

The bizarre idea that making things more expensive will somehow stop people from consuming them is absolutely inane. If you really want to get drunk, you will get drunk. The cheapest option now being significantly more expensive is not a deterrent when you think of alcohol as an inelastic product, something that you need, something that you view as a necessity. Those who suffer from alcoholism, and those around them, will be hit hardest as the substance that they depend on becomes pricier. For those who are already struggling financially this will do nothing but push them closer to poverty. There is no excuse even that the money from MUP can be used to fund addiction services, which are chronically underfunded in Ireland, because it’s not even a tax. It is just a mandated price increase that off-licences and shops must abide by. This is another ‘poverty tax’ in the tradition of taxes on cigarettes and sugar, but in this case, the government doesn’t even care enough to make it an actual tax.

“When you read more into the study this policy is based on, you really get a feeling for how little this government cares about the more vulnerable in Irish society.”

When you read more into the study this policy is based on, you really get a feeling for how little this government cares about the more vulnerable in Irish society. One of the research group’s main conclusions details that MUP “would have larger impacts on those in poverty, particularly high risk drinkers in poverty.” This is to say that while people may drink less, overall they will be worse off. This does not sound great for public health. However, it then goes on to say that those in poverty would be estimated to “very marginally save money” given the reduced drinking being predicted. This perceived benefit, critically, is underpinned by the idea that the government should be able to control how a certain class of people spend their money. Just because you earn less money does not mean that anybody should be able to exert more control over how you spend that money, by attempting to price you out of certain goods like alcohol. 

Given the widespread drinking culture in this country, any outsider would be baffled to hear how little fanfare there has been on this topic. Personally speaking, I’m not surprised. The timing of its introduction is very shrewd. Pubs and bars have been severely restricted since the beginning of the pandemic and even closed for long periods of time. Whenever the opportunity to re-open things has come along over the last two years, there has been an obvious influence or pressure from vintners and publicans. Heavy-handed lobbying from them saw pubs as the media focus of reopening ahead of our ‘meaningful’ Christmas in 2020, to eventually disastrous effect. We have a scenario where restrictions have more or less been fully lifted, and the public are generally more than willing and able to rush out to have a pint. Who wants to go to another gaff or have cans by the canal when we can have a pint in a snug for the first time in ages? As the novelty and freshness of once again being able to go on the lash in town till late eventually fades, you have to wonder how likely people are to return to drinking in other settings when a slab of cans will take you back €40. The prices in off-licences and shops being brought somewhat closer to prices in a pub will surely drive more business the way of the publicans. So, not only do this massive lobbying group who’ve been hassling the government get what they want, but the government may just catch a break by increasing their business too.

People seemed to be upset by the policy when they first heard of it, and it produced some funny work arounds from shops who clearly don’t like the increase either, but with the focus now from the public on pints and nights out of the house, minimum unit pricing may just be taken as part of life in this country from now on. This is one in a long line of anti-people policies pushed forward by recent governments that have been laser-focused to punish and dehumanise those who are less well-off. By continuing to stay relatively silent and still on these issues as they build up, we are making frogs of ourselves — paying little attention to the water as it reaches boiling point. It only takes a little leap out of the pot to see how bad the situation is now, and how much worse it may become in the near future.

Beyond the relatively minor inconvenience of me having to spend more on a bottle of Buckfast, I worry how this situation will affect those people who struggle with addiction and their relationship with alcohol. Things can be tough enough as it is in modern day Ireland, and the prospect of more people being pushed towards the poverty line is grim — especially when others stand by and let it happen.