A new study has found that minimum unit pricing for alcohol will affect 14% of drinkers and that the cheapest alcohol products were favoured by the heaviest drinkers, irrespective of income levels.

Research led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Health Research Board examined the relationship between high-risk drinking, personal income, place of purchase and price paid for alcohol.

This is the first Irish study to investigate the potential impact of minimum unit pricing for alcohol at a population level.

It was conducted using a national sample of 3,187 Irish adults aged 18-75 who reported drinking alcohol in the week prior to interview in 2013.

The research suggests that 14% of Irish adults who currently drink alcohol purchase alcohol at less than €1 per standard drink, which is below the minimum unit price.

Almost two-thirds of respondents reported high-risk drinking with men being more likely to report high-risk drinking relative to women.

The majority (69%) of low-cost alcohol - alcohol purchased below €1 per standard drink - was purchased in supermarkets.

The cheapest alcohol products were favoured by the heaviest drinkers, irrespective of income with approximately 45% of the heaviest drinkers with both high and low incomes purchasing cheap alcohol.

Lead researcher Dr Gráinne Cousins said: "The primary objective of the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol is to reduce alcohol-attributable harm."

"Some opponents of minimum unit pricing are concerned that consumers using alcohol in a low-risk manner will be punished with higher prices.

"Our findings do not support these concerns, as unlike tax or excise measures, the introduction of a minimum unit price would affect less than 14% of the population.

"More importantly, from a population health perspective, we have shown that a minimum unit price of €1 per standard drink will primarily target high-risk drinkers."

The researchers say that in 2013, three deaths per day were alcohol-related and alcohol-related harm costs the State an estimated €1.5bn on alcohol-related hospital discharges based on 2012 figures.

The rate of alcohol-related liver disease has trebled between 1995 and 2013, according to the study.

Call for full support of alcohol bill

The report comes as the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland has called on all senators and TDs to support the entire Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

The bill is proposing a number of measures designed to lower alcohol intake and alcohol-related harm.

A delegation from the RCPI addressed the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting last night to ask all members to fully support the legislation. 

The delegation outlined to Fine Gael Oireachtas members how the health services are being overwhelmed as a result of the unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

They spoke about the pressure on beds and the surge in people presenting with liver problems due to alcohol use.

Dr Maeve Skelly, a consultant gastroenterologist at University Hospital Limerick, said: "When it is as easy to buy alcohol as it is to buy a pint of milk or the newspaper, it is clear the more people will drink alcohol and that those who drink too much and want to stop will find it harder to do so."

A number of measures within the bill have been controversial - especially those that require alcohol to be separated from other goods in stores.

It is supported by Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister of State at Dept of Health Marcella Corcoran Kennedy but Fine Gael backbenchers have come under pressure from smaller grocery outlets about aspects of the proposed legislation.

RCPI President Prof Frank Murray, a consultant gastroenterologist at Beaumont Hospital, has said he would like to see the bill go through as quickly as possible.

The bill has been deferred until after Christmas, apparently to give time to overcome divisions within Fine Gael.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Prof Murray said alcohol is associated with an enormous amount of illness and death in Ireland.

"We have a tidal wave of illness and death associated with alcohol use in Ireland."

He said the bill needs to be implemented in a way that is robust and would "withstand subsequent scrutiny if it's challenged through the courts".

He said that alcohol is no ordinary commodity and it should not be sold with sweets, eggs and tomatoes in the supermarket and in many countries you cannot buy alcohol and food together in a general store.

Prof Murray said that Ireland has very lax regulation in relation to where alcohol is sold and it can be sold almost anywhere.

He said there has been a "dramatic increase" in the number of licenses to sell alcohol in the off-trade, mainly in shops.

Alcohol should be treated differently to other products sold in shops as it is an addictive substance that causes about 1,000 deaths a year in Ireland, he said.

Prof Murray says the legislation that includes product separation and product visibility is "constructive" and the "right way to go" and will reduce harm from alcohol.

He said that while some businesses may see their profits fall as a result of the legislation, "we live in a society not simply an economy and we have to see this in the whole."

The widespread sale of cheap alcohol that we have seen develop in Ireland in the last 20 to 30 years has been "a regressive feature" and these measures are a balanced, reasonable, evidence-based approach to reduce the harm associated with alcohol, he said.

He also defended minimum unit pricing as an effective measure.

He said there is extensive evidence from several provinces in Canada where they have had a pricing mechanism akin to minimum unit pricing, that there has been a fall in alcohol consumption, a fall in hospitalisation as a result of alcohol, a fall in deaths as a result of alcohol and a fall in crime.

"I think there is very good evidence that MUP is effective", he said.

Minimum unit pricing is not a tax, he said, it is a price that is targeted at young people who buy alcohol at pocket money prices and those who drink heavily.

He said it is not going to solve the drink problem in Ireland, just as with road traffic accidents, there is a need for a number of measures to be put in place.