Independent retailers in both the north and south of Ireland support introducing minimum unit pricing (MUP) in Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland–United Kingdom border, sometimes referred to as the Irish border or British–Irish border, runs for 499 km from Lough Foyle in the north-west of Ireland to Carlingford Lough in the north-east, separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.
Border markings are inconspicuous, in common with many inter-state borders in the European Union. As the two states share a Common Travel Area and (as of 2021) Northern Ireland (the only exception within the UK and only in some respects) and the Republic of Ireland are participants in the European Single Market, the border is essentially an open one, allowing free passage of people since 1923 and of goods since 1993. There are circa 270 public roads that cross the border. The Brexit withdrawal agreement commits all involved parties to maintaining an open border in Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland already introduced its MUP policy on January 4, 2022, as part of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act of Ireland. The new MUP measure set the price for a standard unit of alcohol – which is 10 grams in Ireland – at a minimum of €1.
While the Republic did wait for its northern counterparts to implement MUP in both jurisdictions simultaneously, they had to move forward since the north kept delaying the measure.
The Northern Ireland government opened a consultation on introducing MUP earlier in the year. The independent retailers have responded in strong favor.
The Federation of Independent Retailers from both sides of the border supports the MUP measure. They say that it would create a more level playing field, especially for smaller and independent retailers, and quell fears of the cross-border alcohol trade.
It’s certainly a good thing and would make things equal for retailers on either side of the border,” said Martin Mulligan, president of The Federation of Independent Retailers in the Republic of Ireland, as per Ulster Grocer.
It would be particularly good for those retailers whose stores are on or close to the border.”Martin Mulligan, president, The Federation of Independent Retailers, Republic of Ireland
From a retailer’s point of view, MUP would help smaller off-license retailers since big multiples and supermarkets will have to charge the same amount for alcohol products with the policy, eliminating ultra cheap alcohol. This would put an end to cheap prices offered by large stores, as they can cover the loss with the other goods they sell.
One of the main benefits of MUP for smaller retailers with off-licenses is the fact that the big multiples and supermarkets will have to charge the same prices, so they will no longer be able to undercut independents by selling cheaper alcohol as loss leaders,” said Joe Archibald, president of The Federation of Independent Retailers in Northern Ireland, as per Ulster Grocer.
This should level things up and give everyone a fair crack of the whip.”Joe Archibald, president, The Federation of Independent Retailers, Northern Ireland
Cross border trade issues between the north and south of Ireland
The pricing gap between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for alcoholic beverages increased from 27% to 48% as a result of MUP coming into force in the Republic of Ireland but not in Northern Ireland.
Cross-border trade issues have sprung up due to this price gap.
Cross-border trade is predicted to cost the Irish Exchequer €94 million as a result of the North’s failure to adopt MUP simultaneously with the Republic. This is why it is crucial for close-knit areas to work together on alcohol policy development, as recently emphasized by a WHO Europe report on minimum alcohol pricing.
According to one border store in the North, after MUP was put into place in the Republic, their alcohol sales have increased by roughly 30 to 40%. People from the Republic cross the border and purchase alcohol in large quantities from border stores in the north, shelling out anywhere from €200 to €400, or even up to €2,000 or €3,000 in one transaction.
While their overall sales have increased, one supermarket in Donegal, Republic of Ireland, says that their alcohol sales have declined by 13%.
According to the Irish Convenience Store and Newsagents Association (CSNA), the cross-border problems are primarily observed roughly 40 km from the border and then have an impact further afield.
However cross-border issues are not felt more inland and away from the border. Overall the impact of MUP felt by retailers has been minimal in the Republic. The National Off-Licence Association (Noffla), Convenience stores, supermarkets, and craft brewers all report no or minimal impact on alcohol sales.
Alcohol harm in Northern Ireland
The cheap alcohol problem propagated by Big Alcohol and large supermarket chains is primarily a public health problem. Because it has made alcohol more affordable and increased the risk of developing alcohol problems among young people and those at risk of having an alcohol use disorder.
Northern Ireland already has a heavy alcohol burden which has been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The annual rate of alcohol-related deaths in 2020 was 351, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). This is 4.5% more than in 2019.
In 2020, deaths related to alcohol were 2% of all deaths in Northern Ireland.
Men, those in the 45–54 and 55–64 age brackets, and residents of the most underprivileged areas are most at risk of passing away from alcohol-related causes.
Alcohol deaths have been rapidly rising in Northern Ireland. Data from NISRA, show that alcohol-specific deaths in Northern Ireland reached a record high in 2019.
- 336 deaths out of 15,758 registered deaths were alcohol-specific.
- This is over one-third (34.95%) higher than alcohol deaths recorded a decade ago.
MUP can tackle cheap alcohol and uplift the health of Irish people
If Northern Ireland implements the MUP policy it can save thousands of lives from the harm caused by the alcohol industry and protect children, young people, and vulnerable communities much better.
Modeling studies of MUP in the Republic of Ireland have discovered that among the heaviest/high-risk users, alcohol use can be reduced by 15.1%. While the MUP policy is being implemented, a reduction of 8.8% is predicted for the entire population.
MUP is a targeted measure to tackle cheap alcohol and reduce alcohol use problems among the most vulnerable. Other jurisdictions which implement MUP, such as Scotland, are already reaping its benefits.
- Scotland, recorded a 10% reduction in alcohol-specific deaths in 2019, just one year after MUP introduction.
- Another study found that the MUP policy resulted in a 7.7% decrease in household alcohol purchases in Scotland and a 8.6% reduction of the same in Wales.
While it is too early to evaluate the MUP policy in the Republic of Ireland, first results are already positive.
A consumer study conducted in April 2022 in the Republic of Ireland found that 88% of people noticed a difference in the price of alcohol products since the MUP policy came into effect.
60% responded that they would reduce their alcohol expenditure as a result.
It is imperative that the Northern Ireland government implements the MUP policy to uplift communities and help protect the lives of people, specifically those who are most vulnerable.