‘It’s the 11th hour’: Retailers concerned as deadline looms to separate out alcohol products in shops

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A 12 November deadline has been set for retailers to adhere to the separation requirements from the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

THE MINISTER FOR Health Stephen Donnelly has said there will be no extension to the deadline for retailers to separate out alcohol products in their shops, and no plans to provide financial assistance to support them in complying with the regulations.

Smaller retailers, however, are furious at the lack of consultation from the Department of Health on how they should implement this provision – which has been referred to in the past as a “booze curtain” – from the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill by the 12 November deadline. 

Under the landmark alcohol legislation passed by government, it proposes aspects such as minimum unit pricing on alcohol, advertising restrictions on alcohol and stark warning labels on alcohol products. 

Another feature is the separation of alcohol products and advertisement of alcohol products in shops that sell alcohol along with other products, such as a supermarket or convenience store.

Vincent Jennings, the CEO of the Convenience Stores & Newsagents Association (CSNA), told TheJournal.ie: “Members are about to embark on extensive and expensive changes to their store. They’re not sure if they’re safe and will pass health and safety tests, what their situation will be with insurance, and if they’ll meet the requirements. 

We need to know literally what we need to order. The lead in time is close… we still don’t know. It’s the 11th hour. 

According to guidance released by the government for retailers last year, retailers can continue to display alcohol products – which retailers frequently do for spirits – behind the counter at only one point. 

They can also display and advertise alcohol using one of three options:

1. A separate area of the shop separated by a physical barrier with a minimum height of 1.2 metres. Alcohol and advertisements for alcohol should not be visible through this barrier.

2. Enclosed adjacent storage units in which products are not visible up to a minimum height of 1.5 metres, or

3. A maximum of three adjacent units, each of one-metre width and 2.2 metres high. 

The overall aim of the legislation is to reduce the harm from alcohol on the general public and the government said the specific objective from separating alcohol from other products in shops has a number of objectives.

It said in its guidance to retailers: “Alcohol products are less likely to be on display near grocery products, thereby discouraging their purchase as part of everyday household grocery shopping; [and]alcohol products will be less visible to children.”

Jennings said he and other retailers had no issue with the public health intent of the legislation and the rules as they apply to retailers. “We’ve no difficulty in doing this,” he said. “No retailer goes out to break the law.”

What they do have an issue with, however, is what they refer to as a lack of consultation from the government on the matter, and lack of clarity on what such a barrier should look like. 

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“When we’re talking about a barrier, we need to know the guidance on how you’d gain access and egress in line with things like the public health requirements and fire safety,” Jennings said. “Some retailers will be ordering these barriers from China, where there are already time lags and people there working in a restricted fashion.”

He also said he would welcome advice from the Health and Safety Authority – the body which is inspecting premises to ensure they’re compliant with Covid-19 regulations – to ensure whatever barriers are put in meet other health and safety requirements in the premises. 

Such barriers could be a fire hazard, Jennings said, so it was important that retailers are ensuring they comply with all the appropriate guidelines and not just those in the Public Health (Alcohol Bill). 

While he is seeking more consultation, Minister Stephen Donnelly has ruled out an extension to the current deadline for these to be implemented.

In response to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness, he said: “As the provision was commenced in 2018 an extension cannot now be given. There are no plans to provide financial assistance to retailers to comply with the legislation.

The separation of alcohol in mixed retail outlets is an important public health measure to ensure that it is clear that alcohol is not like other grocery products but is one which if used harmfully has serious health impacts. The measure is also designed to reduce the exposure of children to alcohol products and alcohol advertising in mixed retail outlets.

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