Minimum alcohol pricing came into effect on January 4th, and despite being implemented with the express aim of tackling harmful drinking, the measure has already attracted its fair share of criticism.
The culture around drinking in Ireland is one which has served to downplay binge drinking and the effects that alcohol can play in people’s lives, and it has been this way for years. We drink a disproportionate amount of alcohol compared to other countries, with so much of it swept under the umbrella of what we view as ‘a bit of craic’.
When you take into account the fact that alcohol consumption increased significantly during the pandemic, there is no denying the need for action when it comes to addressing harmful drinking. Yet, despite the clear need to tackle this issue, minimum pricing has been met with a considerably negative response.
A myriad of concerns have been raised regarding what the implementation of minimum pricing would actually look like. While the price jump may indeed persuade some heavy drinkers to cut down, many more will simply prioritise alcohol over other expenses, buy contraband/across the border, or perhaps switch to illegal intoxicants. In countries that implemented similar policies (like Scotland), the decline in alcohol consumption was short-lived, and the policy was largely ineffective in terms of making impactful change.
Additionally, since minimum pricing is a price floor not a tax, the extra money generated won’t go to the State – a missed opportunity to fund vital services for those suffering with alcoholism.
What we have here is a measure that, in the best case scenario, will probably have an underwhelming impact on the issue it aims to address, and one which, in the worst case scenario, has the potential to do more harm than good for those dealing with substance abuse.
Ultimately, minimum pricing represents a missed opportunity to tackle a serious issue in a much more effective way – and this is not a unique case.
For example, a couple of weeks ago, An Bord Pleanála approved plans for an 18km ring road around Galway City, which it is hoped will help reduce traffic congestion in the city. However, given the environmental impact such a road would have, the decision to approve it was met with a lot of criticism. In particular, people pointed out that much of the blame when it comes to Galway’s traffic problem lies in the lack of adequate public transport. Surely a better solution would be to put money towards improving the city’s public transport, or perhaps towards the construction of a light rail system? A well-functioning public transport system would have the dual benefit of reducing traffic congestion and having a positive environmental impact…and yet, the ring road plans remain.
At the core of the issue when it comes to both the ring road and minimum pricing, is the notion that they both represent a missed opportunity. Far too often when we see important issues finally being addressed, we’re given ‘band-aid solutions’ – surface-level attempts at appeasing demand for change. It is a whole lot easier to come up with and deliver on a band-aid solution than it is to devise something that tackles the issue at its core, but in the end, you’re left with the problems you started with – and sometimes even worse ones.
It’s also worth addressing how much these band-aid solutions disproportionally affect the less well-off in our society. Effectively doing away with the availability of cheap products is clearly going to disadvantage lower-income people over middle-income people, the latter group being able to withstand the increase in prices. Opting against improved public transportation most significantly disadvantages those who can’t afford alternatives, in turn limiting their options when it comes to work, socialising etc. There is an overlap with regard to how problems contribute to other problems, and if addressed improperly, problems feed into themselves. That’s why it’s vital they are tackled at their roots.
We see these band-aid solutions pop up when an issue is addressed hastily, with no regard for how it actually affects the people the issue concerns. We see these solutions when the person making decisions is more preoccupied with getting credit for ‘enacting change’ during their time in the political limelight than they are with actually enacting change. In all honestly, we see these band-aid solutions everywhere.
However, as we have all seen since the beginning of the pandemic, there is great capacity for change within our systems. The workplace, for example, will probably never go back to what it was pre-Covid, with so many people now preferring to work from home. As we emerge from the pandemic, hopefully our focus will not be on ‘returning to normal’ as it once was. Hopefully, after countless band-aid solutions and missed opportunities, we will jump at the chance to address our issues properly as we re-establish ourselves and our society.