No room for complacency on alcohol
The increasing use of and prevalence of hard drugs in Samoa has already established itself as one of the most pressing issues to be dealt with by the Government in the new year.
Three raids in the past month have confirmed that class A drugs have become a serious problem in Samoa.
Accordingly, the police Minister, Faualo Harry Schuster, recently said cracking down on illegal drugs would be a top priority for the Government this year.
"The aim is to stop before it gets worse or out of control," Faualo said.
"We are taking up this issue very seriously and we will not rest until we find all those who are not only using illicit drugs but also selling them.
"The possession of drugs and ice is illegal in Samoa, and our police force has a duty to prevent members of the public from carrying out these types of activities.”
Faualo’s statement of intent is laudable and the public’s shock at the increasing frequency of drug raids is understandable.
Drugs such as methamphetamine threaten the nation’s social fabric and to inflict the many problems associated with their use such as violence, corruption and health hazards.
But their shock emergence should not draw our attention away from the corrosive effects of the abuse of alcohol, another kind of drug towards which we are at risk of becoming complacent.
Alcohol’s familiarity and pervasiveness makes it difficult for us to objectively appraise its harms in the same way we might illegal substances.
But over the festive season they were plain for all to see and extended far beyond the evidence in the capital streets of those who had over indulged at end of year parties.
The risks to public health and safety posed by alcohol stem in large part to its prevalence and legal status.
Despite being far less acute than most all illegal drugs, when spread across a national population with a strong drinking culture such as our own, alcohol’s hazards can become very serious and its harms are very often borne by innocent third parties.
There are strong and well-established links between excessive alcohol consumption and irrational behaviour, particularly violence at home or in public or driving accidents.
Alcoholic excess is also a serious burden upon our health system and is linked to a number of chronic illnesses, including kidney failure and gout, which research suggests Samoans may be genetically predisposed toward.
As this newspaper recently reported, data suggests that these problems are increasing.
The number of cases referred to the Salvation Army Addiction Services for treatment has risen steadily, from 334 in 2019 to 535 last year.
These statistics do not paint an entirely reliable picture of the extent of the problem of alcohol abuse.
Of those seeking treatment, a majority are doing so as a result of compulsion from the legal system rather than as a result of their own recognition of an inability to tackle problems with substance abuse, suggesting they underestimate the extent of the problem.
(As this newspaper reported, of the 86 people arrested during the police’s festive season crackdown the majority were in relation to incidents connected to drunkenness.)
But they do point to a growing social ill that needs to be addressed.
As the Government returns to its offices this week, a recent paper on public health by Dr. Viali Lameko and Professor Penelope Schoeffel should be at the front of policymaker’s minds.
While principally about obesity, that study made important observations about public policy that should equally apply in other domains. One was the limited results to have been achieved through a policy approach that relies on people changing their behaviour in response to appeals from the Government or simple 'awareness raising’.
The other was the inefficiency of applying taxes to harmful products without an underpinning strategic approach.
Under the previous Government we saw as much with a ham-fisted and later rescinded attempt to increase the excise on liquor in Samoa, an initiative that achieved very little indeed to curb problem drinking.
It is clear that while there are no isolated or simple solutions, Samoa is long overdue for an overhaul of its public health policies. Better regulation of alcohol, be it through ensuring its responsible service in public, restricting its use or increasing the availability of treatment for those in need must be part of that conversation.