sideways

Wine – it is known as ‘the elixir of life’ and is a something that is a central part of life and society throughout Europe and North America. In countries with highly developed and distinct civilisations such as France and Italy, wine is a key characteristic and lubricant of the social and cultural rituals of their national identity and of their whole way of life. At mealtimes, at lunch and a dinner, or in the evening, a glass of wine and sometimes a shared bottle is enjoyed and relaxed over. Far from being a seen as a health hazard, such imbibing is seen as a necessary relieving of stress and good for the heart and digestive system. ‘Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages’ wrote the legendary French chemist, Louis Pasteur.

After years of predominantly beer drinking, Ireland and the UK have played catch up with this pursuit and wine sales have grown enormously. Wine shops proliferate as do wine tasting sessions and clubs. The fact that one can consume wine at home is particularly attractive, especially for women, given that our pubs are still too often male-dominated and old fashioned – not to mention, costly. We simply cannot afford to go out as often as we did.  So, a glass of wine can be enjoyed over a book or while watching TV or a movie with friends and family, surely a safer option than getting stuck into a rounds system in an expensive pub.

However, the latest proposal from our endlessly meddling political culture flies in the face of this. The Oireachtas Health Committee is urging the Government to raise the price of wine so that no bottle can be bought for less than €10, for ‘public health reasons.’ In other words, they want to try and stop people from buying wine!

This is an utterly unfair sledgehammer approach which punishes the many for the sins of the few. There is also absolutely no evidence that such punitive pricing will improve public health. Wine drinkers are hardly the problem end of the drinking culture. The experts must surely know this, but they press ahead regardless with what seems like yet another nanny state measure, seized upon by attention-seeking politicians and quangos?

The price-hike proposal is not only uncompetitive, and an attack on a whole way of life, but it ignores the real sources of our drinking problem which is binge drinking, young people topping up before going out (so-called ‘prinking’) and of course solitary and destructive drinking, often out of depression. The relationship between Irish people and alcohol is far more complex and ingrained than something that can simply be addressed with a mandatory price increase –in the wrong area.

This is just another way to grab more revenue while at the same time being ‘seen to be doing something’ – the two baleful characteristics of our growing State and its meddling culture – and what it really represents is yet another way to hit the hard pressed coping classes, and those who like to sit down after a long day at work, or raising their families, and have a civilised glass of wine in front of the telly.

But consultant endocrinologist, Professor Donal O’Shea disagrees. Having taken a high profile and laudable campaign against child obesity, the busy Professor O’Shea now he wants to move into hitting adults in the pocket for the wine they buy.

‘Ireland has taken the lead in public health measures before’ explains O’Shea ‘smoking being the best example, and minimum unit pricing will affect alcohol consumption in Ireland and will stop the really-low-price selling that, in particular, supermarkets do.”

But what is ‘really low cost’ about a wine that is less than €10? What dinner-parties has Professor O’Shea being going to? The general understanding was that after €10 prices got a bit pricey and, below that cost, they were relatively cheap or good value. This was always the mean. In almost all other European countries, wine is considerably cheaper than here.

As it is, alcohol and tobacco prices in Ireland are already higher than anywhere else in the EU, according to recent official Eurostat figures. But Professor O’Shea, and the Oireachtas Health Committee, want to make wine even more expensive, at a time of hardly any consumer inflation and a lowering of costs elsewhere for very many amenities and products.

And the real point is that the people who drink wine – the middle class mums and dads – are not the real problem aspect with our drinking culture. The problem as we know is binge drinking – not dinner parties.

Ireland’s longstanding issues with alcohol are nothing to do with wine. In fact, the public move to wine and away from beer and spirits in recent years has probably done much to ameliorate our drinking culture. You simply cannot consume wine the way that people, and especially Irish people (and especially in previous decades), consumed beer – in pints and gallons. Sipping a chilled chablis or a glass of Pinot Grigio is surely preferable to multiple pints and chasers! You are unlikely to find someone roaring in an A&E ward on a Friday night after having drunk too much crisp Rose or Cote De Rhone.

After all, if wine is the problem, why isn’t France and Italy stricken with alcoholism? We already pay five times what the French do for a decent bottle of wine. Hiking those prices won’t change drinking behaviour – it will just raise more revenue, and punish everybody in the process.

Bear in mind that Finance Minister Michael Noonan has already put a full euro in tax on a bottle of wine just a few budgets ago.

The reality is that this policy is being made by people who can easily drop €50 or even €80 on a bottle of wine. It doesn’t really affect them: it affects the hardworking middle-class people who are already shouldering the vast brunt of the pain that has led us to recovery.

Just do the maths: if a €6 bottle of wine becomes €12, at two bottles a week – hardly excessive per family – that’s another €500 a year!  And so it’s just another way to screw a few more quid out of the middle classes while the political culture pretends that it’s doing a great social good.

Meanwhile, there is the general hypocrisy of the Government telling us that purchasing alcohol is bad for us, but feeling completely happy about taking the proceeds of these sales. For a bottle of €8 wine, the State takes at least 55% in tax!

There is no doubt that are problems to do with alcohol in Irish society and most of us welcome the broad measures taken so far by the Government to curb the reckless consumption, and promotion, of alcohol. However, a blunt instrument measure such as making wine more expensive is ineffective, grossly unfair and punishes everybody for the faults of the few. It prevents ordinary people from availing of bargains at a time of recession, an experience probably unknown to a Government and political culture that is in a bubble (and a well-heeled bubble) in terms of its detachment from the struggles of ordinary people and their reduced spending power.

How strange that in Ireland the Government is being urged to make it impossible for a punter to buy a bottle of wine for less than €10, whereas in in Sweden, which is often the inspiration for those advocating State controls, there are actually Government-run off licences which sell wine cheaper than in commercial stores precisely to support the ordinary hard pressed consumer!

It seems that once again, we are looking in the wrong area and punishing the wrong people for a wider social ill.

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