Ireland’s government imposed a minimum unit price on alcoholic beverages on Tuesday, one of a handful nations to introduce such a rule as part of a raft of public health measures intended to curb binge drinking and reduce alcohol-related health issues.
The rule means stores, restaurants and pubs must now sell drinks containing alcohol for no less than about 10 cents per gram of the substance. Officials said the measure was aimed at making cheaper, stronger alcoholic products less readily available, particularly for young people and heavy drinkers.
“This measure is designed to reduce serious illness and death from alcohol consumption and to reduce the pressure on our health services from alcohol-related conditions,” Stephen Donnelly, the nation’s minister for public health, said in a statement.
The rules require a price of one euro, or $1.13, per standard drink. That means that a bottle of wine containing 12.5 percent alcohol, equivalent to about 7.4 standard drinks, for example, cannot be sold for less than 7.40 euros, about $8.35.
Advocacy groups and public health experts called the measure — part of legislation enacted in 2018 that included limitations on the labeling of alcoholic beverages and the marketing of it in retailers — an important step toward combating alcohol abuse in Ireland.
“The availability of such volumes of cheap drink in every community in Ireland” has to be tackled “if we hope to address the chronic level of alcohol related harm that demands so much of our health services,” Prof. Frank Murray, chair of Alcohol Action Ireland, an advocacy group, said in a statement.
On average, people in Ireland aged 15 and over drank the equivalent of 40 bottles of vodka, 113 bottles of wine or 436 pints of beer in 2019, according to Ireland’s health services.
Sheena Hogan, chief executive of Drinkaware, an Irish charity, said the measure was a welcome one, but added that it was not a “silver bullet,” and that it needed to be combined with broader campaigns around awareness and education.
“It’s another piece of the jigsaw,” she said. “It’s another tool that can be used reduce harm and reduce misuse.”
Though the new pricing would mean that drinks with high alcohol content currently being sold cheaply would go up in price, most premium brands would stay the same, she said. “It’s not the same as a price hike for all alcohol across all products.”
Some critics of the measure said it would unfairly penalize poorer people and those struggling with alcohol abuse.
“A flat tax of any kind is going to disproportionately affect those families on the lower scale of the economic pyramid,” said Róisín Nic Lochlainn, student union president at the National University of Ireland, Galway. “It’s not going to stop people buying alcohol. It’s just going to push people further into poverty, especially people who live with addictions.”
Many students rushed to shops on Monday to stock up on cheaper alcohol before the measure came into effect, she said. Rather than going to retailers, she said that profits from minimum pricing on alcohol should be put toward rehabilitation and harm reduction programs that would help support young people.
Drinks Ireland, a lobbying group representing producers of Irish alcohol and brands, said that responsibility for implementing the new law would rest with retailers. “As with any new public health intervention, there will be a need to review and evaluate this policy measure for effectiveness after a period of implementation.”
The policy means Ireland is following in the footsteps of neighbors like Scotland, which became the first nation to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol in 2018, and Wales in 2020.
Experts say that the impacts of minimum pricing on alcohol are still being examined. But researchers from the University of Sheffield and Public Health Scotland have already found that the policy in Scotland led to a significant decrease in alcohol consumption among those with a dependence on the substance, according to a report last year.
“You can certainly have a debate over whether or not this is an appropriate use of the government’s public health power,” said Matthew Lesch, a research fellow at the University of York. But he added that preliminary evidence showed that the policy was effective at reducing alcohol consumption.
The move was a significant breakthrough for public health advocates and indicated a growing consensus in Ireland that action needed to be taken to stem alcohol misuse and alcohol-related illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver, Dr. Lesch said. He added that other countries were also struggling with similar public health problems.
“This isn’t just about Ireland: the world is very much watching,” he said.