New alcohol law brimming with potential

We have a new law for controlling and regulating the use and distribution of alcohol in Samoa. 

But will it be the remedy to the obvious damage problem drinking is wreaking upon this country?

A story on the front page of the Samoa Observer on Thursday revealed that long-called-for changes strengthening the regulation of alcohol had been signed into law (“New alcohol controls passed into law”). 

What is notable about the amendments to the Alcohol Control Bill 2020 is its far-reaching scope. The changes are almost a legislative omnibus; they give the Government power to regulate just about every aspect of alcohol’s consumption, distribution, and production. 

Among the powers the Government and the Liquor Board will now be endowed with include having veto power over alcohol advertisements and increased power to inspect distilleries and the ingredients they use. 

The bill also controls the environments in which alcohol is most often publicly consumed; hoteliers must hire only professional security staff empowered to enforce public safety in drinking venues and ensure only those of legal age may enter. 

The passage of the law, first tabled before Parliament in 2018, is in itself a significant legislative achievement. 

But the details make it clear it alone cannot be relied upon to solve Samoa’s long-running struggle with problem drinking. 

Indeed, the Minister of Customs and Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, said while the bill has already been made into a law, the degree to which it will be wielded to regulate the industry remains subject to discussion. 

“There are certain aspects requiring consultation with the business community hence the delay in [...] implementing the [law]," the Minister said.

As part of the legislative process, Parliament’s Economic Sector Committee examined the bill and made a number of suggested changes which were reflected in the final version of the legislation. 

“We recorded a very cheap price to buy some alcohol in the country,” the committee observed. 

“The committee is reviewing the lower cost of alcohol which caused [a] greater risk of alcohol-related problems within families and communities.”

Price controls on alcohol do, of course, have a troubled recent history in Samoa. 

Previous attempts to impose price floors on the sale of liquor via taxation levies proved complicated and were apparently subverted by some businesses who, mystifyingly sold their products at the cost of taxation. 

It all ultimately had the effect of punishing law-abiding alcohol businesses and rewarding those who were seemingly circumventing legislation. It is no surprise the measures were rolled back. 

And the new law does not confront the issue of price head-on.

Instead, it greatly expands the power of the Liquor Board in several areas including to “determine the price for alcohol sold by licensees, or from licensed premises”.

Among the Board’s other increased powers fare obvious victories for curtailing the harms of drinking. 

These include the appointment of Alcohol Inspectors empowered to enforce provisions of the Act such as forbidding the sale of alcohol to minors and ensuring distillers comply with the requirements of the law such as making their products open to inspection. 

Reforms such as these are sorely needed. 

The Police Commissioner, Fuiavaili'ili Egon Keil, perhaps put the problem most pithily in an interview with this newspaper on New Year’s Day in response to a spate of homicides many linked to alcohol. 

“This [alcohol] is literally killing our people,” he said.

“But there is only so much we can do about it as Police. We need to work with others”.

The Commissioner was referring to, of course, not just the ill-health effects that follow excessive alcohol consumption, including poor health and even blackouts. 

Alcohol’s most harmful consequences are borne most often by innocent third-parties in the form of road accidents, violence, and fatal mishaps and misadventure which rob people of their lives.

Frontline Police workers have to deal with these effects every day; of the more than 26,000 calls for assistance to Police made in 2020 more than one-third were related in some way to the consumption of alcohol, statistics released this week showed.

The Commissioner’s warnings have been echoed by our nation’s Judges who have repeatedly seen the dangerous and often fatal effects of the abuse of locally-produced alcohol which more than one jurist in Samoa has taken to calling “jet fuel”. 

It has since been time something was done to curb these problems. 

But the extent to which this newly amended law will prove the answer remains to be seen. 

It is understandable that the Government should want to consult with the business community about how it exercises its new powers given the unintended consequences of recent price regulation. 

But the evidence is in from around the world: the most effective way to reduce alcohol consumption is to raise its price. That has been proven by studies in countries ranging from Scotland to Japan to Germany. 

Our Pacific neighbour, Tonga, provides one of the most compelling examples of the way in which taxation reduces binge drinking. 

Since the fiscal year 2015, Tonga has been steadily increasing taxes on locally-made and imported beers.

The effects have been immediately visible. 

According to a study by the World Bank overall, 30 per cent of beer drinkers in the nation drank less. And those who continued to drink reduced the amount they did. Following a tax increase in the 2018 fiscal year the number of drinkers who consumed more than 15 standard drinks a week fell from more than one-third to a little less than one-quarter in one year alone. 

The Government’s new alcohol law is brimming with potential. But whether it is used to effect change will depend on the Government’s appetite to take hard decisions. 

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