Back to basics on alcohol

Controlling or reducing people's use of alcohol is surely among the most consistently vexed issues faced by Governments across human history. 

In Samoa we need no recent reminder of how attempts to tame the sale of alcohol, either by tax or other regulation, so often have ended up distorting the market in new and often worse ways.

It was only in 2018 that an attempt to impose a 100 per cent tax on locally-made liquor to reduce alcohol-related violence provided a casebook example of unintended consequences. 

Local producers, of course, cried out that they had to scale back or cease production entirely. There was even incredulity and whispers about how some products appeared to be sold for prices just above or at the rate of excise making profit seemingly impossible. 

The Government’s staged retreat in the excise matter was well-chronicled in these. 

But the trial and failure of that policy does not obscure the fact that alcohol-related violence shows no sign of abating; it appears, in fact, to be growing worse. 

The Police’s festive season operation this year netted more arrests than last year, the majority of which were related to drunk driving. 

That increase, while small and in the order of about five per cent, cannot heave been easily achieved; not when it is remembered that the 2018 holiday season was already a high watermark for alcohol-related law enforcement. 

The number of people charged for drink driving over the previous holiday period had already surged by some 120 per cent. 

As we have written previously, these rising statistics often reflect better Police enforcement as much as they do growing social problems. 

But whatever their origin, they do shine a light on an area of life in Samoa that has become problematic. 

Most people have the ability to drink responsibly. But it's also true that if you dig deeply enough on crime and its causes in Samoa you will almost find alcohol. 

A Samoa Law Reform Commission report in 2017 found that just under three-quarters of all murder, manslaughter and grievous bodily offences were committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

We’ve also recently been shocked by the growing prominence of two other categories of crime long linked to alcohol: domestic abuse and roadway fatalities.

This year we have seen calls from Governments and interest groups of all kinds for new policy on the issue. These include more punitive sentences for drink drivers (including mandatory jail terms); greater use of the breathalyser by Police; a legal responsibility to be placed on venues that serve excessive amounts of alcohol to people they know are going to later drive. 

To a greater or lesser degree each has some merit.

So too does a pure version of the most recent policy measure we tried and discarded: studies from around the world have shown that an alcohol tax (when applied evenly and not selectively) reduces drinking by a little less than one per cent for every percentage point taxes are raised. 

But we suspect we might be getting too far ahead of ourselves

That is not to say we do not abhor the consequences of out-of-control drinking. We chronicle them every day.

But rather we believe that Samoa’s failure of regulation is much more basic than the debate on alcohol policy is currently acknowledging. 

Alcohol that is packaged up in a fashion that appears similar to an innocuous soft drink is widely sold in this country's grocery stores. 

But how often do consumers have their identification checked to see if they are of legal age to buy them? How often are spot checks conducted and how often are retailers fined if they do not enforce the laws on underage drinking?

Solutions to excessive drinking are complicated but much more public education and information about alcohol's dangers would be a good start. 

It was one story above all these holidays that underscored how far we have to come on the issue of alcohol regulation, on the front page of our December 27 issue last year (“Police to investigate liquor "blackouts").

Usually when people black out from drinking it is because they have consumed too much alcohol. 

But often when they do so after drinking only a small amount, which authorities many victims consistently insisted they had been, experience from other countries suggests they have not been drinking alcohol at all but a much more harmful, cheaper substitute. 

The debate on excessive drinking and its many social consequences will prompt new and different approaches and policies.

But it is also an occasion to ask how much faith we have in the regulation that exists currently. 

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