In January 2022, I wrote here about what I claimed were ridiculous aspects of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 which require every case of wine, spirits or beer imported into Ireland to be broken open and a bilingual label in English and Irish pasted on to each and every bottle or can warning of the link between alcohol consumption and cancer.
The same label will be required on all bottles and cans of beer, spirits, liqueurs and wine products produced for sale in the State of whatever size. It won’t do simply to label the case, the box, the slab or the cardboard six-pack. Transborder traffic in Bushmills whiskey will have an All-Ireland bilingual aspect from now on.
Recently, a departmental official actually expressed a degree of surprise that these provisions had elicited no objection from the EU Commission. But elements of the international drinks trade are now set to submit a complaint against Ireland to the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission about these rules.
It should be noted that sales of wine, beer, cocktails or spirits by the glass, jug or carafe in pubs, restaurants, theatres, music venues or other places will not require any individual warning. Instead, the premises will have to post a bilingual notice to the same effect somewhere on its walls. How many of us can remember recently seeing the Prices Act mandatory notices in pubs informing customers of the prices charged for pints and other products? They served some purpose. Oddly, they seem to have disappeared.
The same Act of 2018 prohibits outdoor advertisement of alcohol products within 200 metres of a school or creche. Since most school-goers and toddlers live more than 200 metres from those places, they can see outside hoardings advertising those products on the way to and from their daily destination but no nearer. But that’s the law masquerading as an ass.
And now with the advent of Heineken 0.0 and Guinness 0.0, toddlers going into their creches can safely and legally see advertisements for alcohol-free products unheard of and unforeseen in 2018; the cleverer ones will note the difference, no doubt.
The 2018 Act was apparently the high tide mark of alcohol zealotry. Five years after enacting laws to protect creche-goers, Simon Harris, who as Health Minister piloted though the 2018 Act aimed at de-normalising alcohol sales and consumption on the grounds of health dangers, is working away in the Department of Justice on new licensing laws to “support and stimulate the night-time economy”.
Helen McEntee, who will shortly regain the reins at Justice, described the pub as an Irish institution “where we so often come together – to chat over a drink or food, to host community events, to celebrate and to mourn”. I agree.
The new licensing regime will include standard seven-day opening hours for pubs until 12.30am, annual permits for late night opening until 2.30am, and provide for night clubs (with a live band or DJ and at least 20 per cent of floor space for dancing) to remain open until 6am, with service stopping at 5am.
Off licences will have extended opening hours from 10.30am to 10.30pm seven days a week and new off-licences will not have to extinguish an old on-licence.
I agree with these reforms. I think back ruefully to the almost universal political and trade opposition that I faced when I tried to introduce cafe bars as an alternative to crowded binge-drinking venues in the early 2000s. Opposition was short-sighted and commercially suicidal.
Things changed. Drink-driving legislation and the smoking ban put big pressure on rural pubs. Their numbers and viability have plummeted. They won’t be saved by extended hours alone; transport services by minibus are needed too.
It is strange to see how Irish public policy gyrates from one issue or fad to another. The anti-alcohol lobby had their heyday in 2018. We now have silly saloon-style swing doors at drink sections and aisles in grocery shops. Are they effective?
We have bans on outdoor advertising of drink near schools and crèches. Is that effective?
We may yet have those bilingual health stickers on cans and bottles of drink, but not on pint glasses. When and if they become normal, will they have any effect on overall alcohol consumption?
Meanwhile, Government plans to legalise the running of casinos and slot machine arcades (which are illegal in most of the country). Gambling advertising is rampant.
How long will it be before a massive campaign against commercial gambling starts? I think that there should be controls. But then again, I also think that the Gardaí should close down the rash of slot machine arcades that are plainly illegal in Dublin because Dublin City Council outlawed them more than 30 years ago.
That’s Irish regulation for you.