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27-10-2016, 08:49
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Over the past nine years, I’ve often found myself cast in the role of Cassandra for predicting that the restrictions imposed on tobacco will increasingly be applied to alcohol. And, to be honest, while various measures have been mooted, in practice surprisingly little has actually happened.
But one measure that certain comes straight out of the tobacco control playbook is the proposal in Ireland to severely restrict the display of alcohol in shops (http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/first-look-booze-curtains-at-centre-of-controversial-seanad-debate-35164271.html). While in large supermarkets this may amount to nothing more than confining alcohol to a discrete section where children are not admitted, in small corner shops it will effectively add up to covering products with curtains or shutters in the same way as now applies to tobacco.
The ostensible reason given is the protection of children from the awful sight of bottles and cans of strong drink, but surely there’s also an underlying hope that it may curb adult consumption by making alcoholic drinks less visible. I’d say that’s very questionable, as if people want a drink, they’ll buy one, and in recent years we’ve seen declining overall consumption at the same time as alcohol has become more visible in shops and also spread to more outlets such as petrol stations.
But one thing it will do is the change the nature of the marketplace. Currently, you will survey the products available on the shelves and often, if you see something new that looks interesting, give it a try. You may already have seen advertising for that product, but you probably haven’t. If you have to ask for a product by name, or ask the shopkeeper to raise the shutter to view the shelves, you’re much less likely to do that, and more likely to end up asking for a familiar name simply because it’s easier.
This will very much stifle innovation and new product development, which should be of particular concern to sectors such as craft beer which to a large extent depend on variety and refreshing the range rather than just selling the same old stuff. Imagine trying to launch a new cigarette brand under the current regime – it would be simply impossible, and so the market ends up ossifying in the form it had before the restrictions came in.
And can we be sure there won’t be moves to apply similar curbs to the display of alcoholic drinks in pubs, at least those where children are admitted?
On a related note, it’s worth noting that the Irish Republic is also planning to introduce a minimum alcohol price of €1 per unit. At current exchange rates this is not far off double the 50p/unit proposed in Scotland. If applied in the UK, this would start to cut into the bottom end of the range of pub prices (think of those 6% real ales in Spoons after applying the 50p CAMRA discount) although, as prices are generally higher in Ireland, it probably wouldn’t quite manage it there.

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