A New Approach Needed For Alcohol Licensing

This post has been updated and moved to the blog’s new domain, conductunbecoming.ie, and you can find it here.

The attitude toward alcohol of many people in Ireland is, unfortunately, an irresponsible, unhealthy and antisocial one. We have some of the highest rates of  binge drinking and alcohol-related violence in Europe, yet perhaps the greater problem is that the entire basis on which our government attempts to ‘tackle’ drinking problems, from the intoxicating liquor bill of 1927 to its most recent amendment last year, has been to forego the carrot in favour of the stick, and ‘crack down’ on excessive drinking rather than encourage people to drink more responsibly. This view is not just held by the government itself, but also by opposition parties who routinely compete to look tougher on binge drinking and alcohol problems, with rarely a whisper on how to deal with them as the social and public health issues which they are. It is this fundamental misunderstanding, and even denial, of the realities of the situation by every political party in the country that has led to increasingly short-sighted and counter-productive attempts to address the problems.

We are in dire need of a new approach to the matter of alcohol licensing and alcohol laws, and how they affect the attitude the public has towards drinking. We must avoid the overly-simple view of young people’s attitudes towards alcohol that dominate current debate and look at the facts as they are to come up with a solution that accepts the realities of our current situation rather than glosses over them. Above all, we have to accept that there is no quick fix for the alcohol-related problems affecting our society and that it could be a generation before any truly progressive reform brings us to where we need to be. Our society and our culture will need a seismic shift, and that can only be achieved by a similar shift in the way in which the government approaches our problems.

The first thing we have to accept is what differentiates us from other European countries when it comes to our cultural approach to alcohol, and how our government can facilitate a more mature and responsible attitude to drinking amongst those for whom it has become a problem. There are a number of misconceptions about the high level of binge drinking in Ireland:

People in Ireland don’t binge drink as a result of drink being either too cheap or too freely available. If this were the situation, one would expect that in countries with more restrictive consumption laws (shorter opening hours, higher alcohol taxes), binge drinking rates would be lower. The opposite is in fact the case:


Opening hours are complex and difficult to find data on, so I’ve used this data on alcohol tax rates across the EU25, and correlated it with this data on binge drinking rates. What you can quite clearly see is that despite having the highest excise duty on both beer and wine (three times and five times, respectively, the EU average) and the second highest excise duty on spirits (two and a half times the EU average), Ireland still has the highest level of binge drinking in the EU by some margin. The five countries with the highest levels of tax on alcohol occupy the top five slots in the binge drinking table. Conversely, the eight countries with the lowest binge drinking rates in the EU all have a 0% rate of tax on wine. This would hardly surprise anyone, as wine isn’t particularly conducive to binge drinking.

I’m not suggesting that people in Ireland, UK and Scandinavia binge drink because it’s more expensive. Obviously the causality is the other way around, and these countries have put in place high taxes to try to discourage people from binge drinking. What I am suggesting is that these attempts have done nothing to solve the problem. The same countries have had the highest alcohol taxes for years now, while binge drinking has increased regardless. Of course, bringing our tax rates down to Italy’s level isn’t going to reduce our binge drinking rate to theirs, but it would stop punishing the vast majority of people who drink responsibly for doing something that isn’t harming anyone.

Ireland’s binge drinking problems aren’t caused by too low a drinking age. Again, one would hence expect that countries with higher drinking ages would have lower binge drinking rates. This time the statistics are somewhat more ambiguous:


Here I’ve used this data for legal drinking ages, taking the minimum age to purchase beer or wine in a bar/restaurant for comparison. If you were to stretch any conclusion out of the above, you’d say that the top five binge drinking countries have a minimum drinking age of 18, and the bottom 7 all have minimum drinking ages below that. However, once again, the causality is likely to be that countries with high binge drinking rates have imposed high drinking ages, with no discernible effect on reducing binge drinking. There is reason to believe (as I’ll explain later), that a lower drinking age can actually play a part in reducing binge drinking in our case.

Our binge-drinking isn’t caused by the fact that we mainly drink beer, where continental drinkers drink more wine. While there is definitely a correlation here, it’s somewhat missing the point. Take Belgium, Germany and Austria, each of them a predominantly beer-drinking country with significantly less binge drinking than Ireland. The difference to note is how they drink beer. Unlike Ireland or the UK, they commonly drink a glass of beer alongside food. It’s not that countries that drink more wine have less binge drinking, it’s that countries with a culture of drinking alongside food have lower rates of binge drinking. Wine drinking countries clearly fit within that category, but it’s quite possible for us to reduce our binge drinking without having to give up on our pints of Guinness.

The state’s main tools over the past years to curb binge drinking have all been to try to make alcohol more expensive and more difficult to get hold of. These changes have been for the most part reactionary, short-sighted, and have at best achieved nothing, and at worst been counter-productive. We need to change course completely, recognise that there’s no such thing as a quick-fix to the country’s alcohol problems, and adopt a long-term strategy that, rather than trying to force everyone to drink less, seeks to facilitate those who wish to drink responsibly to do so. There are a number of measures that I believe can play a part in this:

1. Deregulate opening hours

Much like in the UK, we should allow pubs/restaurants/shops/etc. that sell alcohol to do so at whatever hour they choose. At the moment many Irish people find themselves in a situation where they’re sitting down responsibly having a few pints, when the clock strikes 12:30 and the Gardaí show up to kick everyone out. They reluctantly down the rest of the pint sitting in front of them, exacerbating any drunkenness that already affected them. Already irritated from having been kicked out of the pub, they head to the local chipper to get a quarter-pounder. Of course, as everyone else has been kicked out at the same time, there’s a huge queue of irritated people having to wait a long time to get any food. The tension gets too much for just a couple of them, a fight starts, friends try to break it up, and soon enough there are 3 people heading to the A&E ward of the local hospital. This obviously isn’t a desirable situation, and research indicates that the UK’s 24-hour legislation has caused a moderate overall decrease in violent crime.

Off-licenses should similarly gain the freedom to open when they wish, although the momentum is currently in the other direction (and as someone who has worked in an off-license, I would like to point out that the recent reduction in their opening-hours to 10pm is bordering on the ludicrous, as the hour from 10-11pm is the quietest of the night).

2. Liberalise on- and off-premises licenses

At the moment, there are two main types of place to drink alcohol; pubs, where food is rarely available (and usually limited and expensive), and night-clubs, where food is never available. Both of these categories are tightly regulated, which fosters little competition. Back in 2005 Michael McDowell tried to introduce cafe-bars, as a small step towards allowing people who want to eat alongside a beer to do so, and also to introduce a modicum of competition into the industry. Of course, as you all know, pressure from publicans caused Fianna Fail backbenchers to oppose the plan, and it never got introduced (I always find it amusing that Fianna Fail don’t even have the balls to stand up to a group of publicans, let alone the major public-sector unions). The government should go one step further, and completely merge the various pub/club/restaurant/hotel/etc. licenses into a single on-premises license, and make it much easier to obtain, and virtually free. The current system of a fixed-price license depending on size and type of premises means the most profitable license-holders are the ones that try to cram as many customers into as small a space as possible, all the while selling them as much drink (and as little else) as possible. My proposal below for restructuring on-premises excise duty, along with the increased competition of more licenses, should help reverse this trend.

Michael McDowell did manage to make moderate inroads into liberalising off-license sales, particularly in supermarkets and convenience stores. However, many of these changes are now being reversed, in a charge led, once again, by publicans who take issue with the increased competition. People have come to expect immediate results (no doubt compounded by the fact that politicians seem to keep promising immediate results), but with things like this we need to convince people that only as part of a broader package of reform, and even then only over a long time scale, will we really see the benefits of this kind of liberalisation.

3. Completely restructure excise duty

As I’ve pointed out above, increases in tax on alcohol don’t seem to have any effect on reducing binge drinking. On the other hand, scrapping it altogether would hardly encourage people to stop binge drinking. What we can do, however, is structure it to incentivise responsible drinking, and to encourage pub/club/bar owners to provide an atmosphere conducive to responsible drinking. What I propose is that the tax rates charged on alcohol would be inversely proportional to the amount of food sold by the establishment. As an example, in a restaurant that sells lots of food, but only the occasional bottle of wine, that wine would be subject to almost no tax, as it’s obviously not being used to binge drink, so there’s no reason to prohibit it. Conversely, a night-club that doesn’t sell any food whatsoever would have to charge the highest rates of tax on the drinks it sells. As the increased number (and homogeneity) of licenses will bring in increased competition, any establishment that wants to remain competitive would then try to sell as much food as possible alongside the drinks, so that they can sell their drinks at lower tax rates. Hence, although some pubs and clubs could continue not to serve food if they so wished, there would be plenty of places where you could find a broad and competitively priced range of food to eat alongside your drink, and your drink would be cheaper at the same time.

Off-license excise duty is a different matter entirely, as there’s no way of telling whether the beer an off-license is selling is going to be consumed alongside food or not. The simplest solution is to start with a significant reduction in the tax on wine, as the vast majority of wine-buyers do intend to drink it alongside food, and making it better priced in comparison to beer or spirits should encourage people to move in that direction. Once we start to see the societal benefits of on-premises drinking becoming more closely associated with food, then I would advocate a gradual reduction in the tax rates on beers, and then spirits, but until that happens we should focus duty reform on incentivising drinking alongside food.

4. Reduce the minimum drinking age to 16 for beers and wines

This proposal would definitely cause the most political opposition, but I do feel it’s very important in the long run. People’s attitudes to alcohol are significantly shaped by their first experience with it; their expectations of why people drink, when people drink and how people drink are going to be built upon the first few years they spend in the presence of alcohol. At the moment, most teenagers’ first experiences with alcohol are somewhere along the lines of sitting in a field, downing a bottle of undiluted vodka, and almost catching pneumonia. If they’re lucky, they’ll have been invited to a house party and can avoid the pneumonia in favour of mistaking the parents’ bottle of poitín for something that won’t make them go blind. Teenagers in Ireland drink, teenagers across Europe drink (regardless of the local laws), and teenagers are going to keep drinking. Trying to ‘crack down’ on under-age drinking will just push teenagers further into the sort of the scenarios that we should be trying to avoid. Is it any wonder that so many of these people grow up to be irresponsible with alcohol when the only starting points we leave available to them are irresponsible ones?

It certainly won’t happen overnight, but we’re going to have to take teenagers out of the fields, and arrive at a scenario where their first experience with alcohol is in a responsible environment, with adults nearby and food available. The only way this is going to happen is if we accept the inevitable, and let them purchase beer and wine in pubs and bars from the age of 16, while retaining a minimum age of 18 to purchase spirits. This is the case in Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and many other European countries, and in each of them the incidence of binge drinking, both amongst teenagers and the wider public, is far lower than in Ireland.

None of the proposals I’ve put forward above are going to see immediate results, and we shouldn’t expect them. We really need to look for a long-term path to a more responsible drinking culture in Ireland, and for that a new approach is needed. I accept that this goes against the grain of current Irish political thought, but those of us who wish to live in a more responsible society in twenty years time have a duty to question current thinking and push for a solution that stands a chance of really changing things. In the process we might just ensure that future generations don’t have to deal with the chronic alcohol problems we see today, so this isn’t a subject that we can really afford to keep quiet about.


3 Responses to “A New Approach Needed For Alcohol Licensing”

  1. 1 B.Suttle July 1, 2009 at 9:18 am

    I think the “units” system needs to be scrapped. It’s obviouly ineffective. Very few people actually know what a “unit” or a “starndard drink” is, and i don’t think they’re in any rush to find out as tbh it’s just plain silly and as a drinker i find it offensively patronising.

    Instead, why can’t they make all alcoholic beverage containers clearly display how much alcohol they contain in milliletres?

    For example, a 200ml bottle at 37.5% contains 75mls of alcohol.
    A 500ml can at 4% contains 20mls of alcohol.
    A 500ml can at 6% contains 30mls of alcohol.

    With every adult achieving at least foundation maths in the leaving cert, i think we can trust them to do simple arithmetic. Then people would finally have some sort of worabke system of estimating their alcohol intake on a night out.

  2. 2 Paddy Murphy July 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Excellent points.

    Unfortunately it will never happen until we have a liberal Govt. in Power.
    We live in a Nanny State and it’s going to continue for the next 20 or 30 years.

  1. 1 Vintners Federation demands price controls on alcohol - Page 7 Trackback on January 3, 2011 at 10:55 pm
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