Alcohol violence an issue for us all

For years notes of caution from Samoa’s judiciary about the link between alcohol and violence have been growing louder.

They have now reached a crescendo and cannot be ignored. 

Frontline Police workers must deal directly with the consequences of alcohol-fuelled violence; they greet its horrific consequences on a regular basis.

But our nation’s jurists have a unique perspective on alcohol and its role in our society.

They hear forensic reconstructions of murder cases; they are party to unique insights into perpetrators’ and victims’ blood alcohol levels. 

Judges have an unmatched view of the problem from the top, its causes and its changing nature.

Theirs is a uniquely authoritative voice on alcohol policy.

We have seen two Supreme Court judges in one week sound the alarm about the corrosive effect alcohol is having on our communities.

It is time to listen. 

If we continue to ignore cautions of such frequency from such informed voices then we must face up to an uncomfortable and chilling truth.

Further inaction will make this nation complicit in the epidemic of violence that is robbing us of the lives of young men in their prime for the most trivial of reasons. 

Last week Supreme Court Justice Tologata Tafaoimalo Tuala-Warren has warned about the dangers of excessive consumption of certain domestic spirits. 

She did so as she handed down sentencing remarks for four young men who had pled guilty to a charge of joint manslaughter.

A 38-year-old father-of-seven died by being stoned to death last August. It is needless to say that this is a horrific episode and one that can never be explained.

But it’s apparent that the flashpoint for violence was a verbal altercation of some kind, the details of which are completely inconsequential to this story.

As Justice Tologata noted, of far greater significance was the fact that the four guilty men had met for a “drink up” at which excessive quantities of a locally-made brand of vodka was consumed. 

“This case brings to the fore yet again the dangers of excess alcohol consumption of locally produced Rover vodka for which there is insufficient public awareness,” she said. 

“I share my colleagues’ and the Police Commissioner’s concerns about the role locally produced vodka plays in the commission of crimes. 

“The relevant authorities are encouraged to address the issue of locally produced vodka as it has featured largely in offending behaviour which has come before the courts."

So far as we know, there is nothing unique about the properties of locally produced vodka: its active ingredient, like all alcohol, is ethyl-alcohol. 

The Government says the content of alcohol is regularly tested by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme to ensure cheap and harmful substitutes such as methanol are not being used.

The matter of local alcohol’s contents is also being investigated by Police many months since reports that people were “blacking out” after drinking even small amounts of alcohol. 

But until such investigations bare any fruit and we are presented with evidence we have no reason to assume that manufacturing is the problem with locally manufactured vodka.

One major issue is price. 

And attempts by the Government to tackle the accessibility of highly potent alcohol with an excise tax have, frankly, been a spectacular failure. 

The Government raised the amount of excise placed on high-volume spirits in, what it said, was an attempt to curb incidents of alcohol-fuelled violence.

By June of last year, the Government was walking back those increases in a phased manner amid reports that local distilleries were suffering.

The decision also followed reports from local manufacturers that some of their rivals were selling their products at levels below even that set by the excise tax - suggesting either they were taking a loss on the sale of their products or subverting the tax. 

Businessman Va’atuitui Meredith alleged at a Ministry of Revenue forum that there were examples of local vodka that were being sold at levels of up to $10 beneath the excise price.

“How can the retailers meet their margins by selling at that price when the excise tax alone is $38 tala?,” he said. 

To this day cheap and available vodka remains a major issue. There are certain brands of vodka that are being sold at major discounts in price relative to other locally produced brands. 

Such low prices and high alcohol-by-volume levels alone are an invitation to excessive consumption. 

Something needs to be done to address the availability of cheap alcohol. And that doesn’t simply mean the passage of new pricing legislation without any accompanying enforcement to check that laws are being adhered to.

Without the latter component, such policy is effectively useless, if distillers will, as has been alleged, try to subvert price controls for commercial gain.

But as Justice Vui Clarence Nelson said on Friday, in handing down sentencing remarks to two men from Leauva’a Uta who had pleaded guilty to a case of manslaughter, the problem is, in fact, broader than price alone. Combatting this scourge is a responsibility we all share.   

In this incident last year, a father-of-two was savagely beaten to death not far from his home.

“But every year many people die from alcohol-related offending, whether it be through beatings or motor vehicle accidents, and very little seems to be seriously done to address the problem,” Justice Vui said. 

“This [is] despite repeated warnings from the Judges of the country about the dangers of alcohol abuse and easy availability  of alcohol, particularly what I call the ‘jet-fuel’ variety in villages and stores.”

Justice Vui noted that policy alone is not the answer and the responsibility to address this problem is one borne by the community at large. 

“Sadly, many village councils are failing in their duty to control and Police the distribution and consumption of alcohol within their communities,” he said. 

“And in the Apia urban area, it is a bit of a free-for-all. Until some concrete measures are implemented, tragic incidents like what happened in the present case will continue to unfold before the courts.”

We couldn’t agree more. 

So long as our society looks uncritically at public “drink ups” with groups of young men carrying bottles of high-strength liquor then the issue of alcohol-induced violence will always be with us. 

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