EDITORIAL COMMENT: Fewer bottle stores, more bars needed

Many people would welcome a major effort by the Liquor Licencing Board and the police to enforce licencing conditions and ensure that bottle stores, bars, hotels, clubs and the general public followed the laid down rules so as to minimise public nuisance and end a lot of health risks.

The Liquor Licencing Board has now said it will more active inspecting premises and will be doing more to enforce the conditions of every licence, whatever it is for. 

This will require backing from the police, because so many infringements of the licence laws are a joint effort by greedy licence holders and members of the public who encourage the breach of licence laws, as well as ignoring the general ban on drinking alcohol in public.

There is now an almost universal mass flouting of licence laws and the public drinking laws in most shopping centres, and this has given rise to large numbers of people hanging around the bottle stores drinking for half the night, without a public toilet in sight and so creating ever increasing health hazards.

Zimbabwe’s licencing laws have been liberalised considerably over the past six plus decades, treating the general public as adults who are entitled to buy themselves a drink when they want one, but at the same time having public drinking in premises that are controlled by the licence holder and by ensuring that the rest of the public are not unduly threatened or overwhelmed by the drinkers.

At the end of the 1950s there were very strong controls on liquor. In the high density suburbs the urban local authorities had a monopoly, and even after access to clear beers and spirits was granted to indigenous Zimbabweans, they still had to be sold and largely consumed on these local authority premises.

In the rest of the city bottle stores, hotels and clubs held the monopoly, although there were a couple of bars. Supermarkets could not sell   alcohol. 

Bottle stores had to close by 5pm, clubs later in the evening and hotels could have public bars that also closed late in the evening, along with a “take-away”, a sort of hatch where they could sell alcohol off their licence for consumption elsewhere.

That is one reason why there were a lot of sports clubs. These were founded by sports enthusiasts, but as time went on and clubhouses with bars and lounges were built they acquired a large veranda membership, people who wanted a social centre with a bar, but never played any sports. 

There was also a string of suburban, city centre and Avenues hotels that lived off their bars, although they had to have rooms, few of which were ever occupied.

The rise of so many other bars, legal and otherwise, as licencing laws were liberalised is one reason why so many of the clubs have lost membership. 

They are now largely back to the pure sports enthusiasts, and no longer can subsidise the sports facilities with the veranda memberships and the bar profits.

The first shift in liberalising was to allow supermarkets to sell alcohol, with the bottle stores opposing the move, and then the closing hours of supermarkets and bottle stores were extended, which killed the hotel off licence business and eventually caused most of these to close. 

Bottle store owners became less fussy about enforcing public drinking laws, and while the police would raid suburban shopping centres every now and again, the culture of a bottle store becoming more like a bar, but without interior drinking, grew and grew, until we have the sort of mess we see today.

At independence the local authority monopolies were broken in the high density suburbs, which now became ordinary suburbs with the Liquor Board prepared to licence bottle stores and private bars, under the same conditions that pertained in the rest of the towns and cities. 

The same problem of bottle store owners being lax about public drinking, some closing their eyes to what was going on outside their doors and some positively encouraging people to hang around, spread to the new bottle stores.

One major problem was that with the new openings, the reason for most bottle stores to exist had fallen away. They had been specialist shops with a virtual monopoly, but no longer.

There was some innovation to at least control public drinking and meet legitimate demand with the licensing of suburban bars, the sports bar concept. 

This was an attempt to allow suburban bars but without having to deal with major opposition from householders around the suburbs. If run properly it would have succeeded. 

But the competition from cheaper bottle stores was serious and the owners of these businesses were not really that interested in doing less business.

One interesting point is that while bottle stores in most shopping centres have people hanging around and drinking in public, almost every supermarket manages to keep their doorways clear of drinkers along with the pavements in the vicinity. So it is possible to prevent people using a bottle store or its equivalent as a bar; all it takes is a decision by the licence holder.

The major problems with public drinking is that while a lot of drinkers just become pleasant when they have imbibed, significant numbers become aggressive and some become highly disagreeable.

There should be no reason for people wanting to do ordinary shopping to have to cope with this. At the same time the lack of public toilets and bottle store toilets creates the health hazards. Real bars have to satisfy health requirements.

The police in some respects have given up enforcing the “social crime” of public drinking or of drinkers hanging around bottle stores. 

We agree that this sort of crime, breaching regulations, is different from preventing theft, robbery and public violence, but someone needs to enforce the rules that allow different people to rub along together without causing major harm.

This is where the Liquor Licencing Board needs to do its duty more vigorously and perhaps with greater innovation, from both the board and the local authorities who licence businesses. 

For example we can probably do with far fewer bottle stores, but at the same time have more bars where drinkers do have to behave and where it is easier to enforce health and noise rules.

The rise of many other outlets for “take away” alcoholic drinks, usually far better controlled than most bottle stores, has removed the reason for so many bottle stores, which have very largely simply become a serving hatch for public drinkers. 

While some specialist bottle stores have a different business, most bottle stores should be given the opportunity to convert to being a proper bar, with larger premises, even if these are veranda premises, plus proper bathrooms. 

They would then be selling only to the sitting customers. 

This would legalise and regulate what has become the norm, but with far less public nuisance and far fewer problems for those who do not wish to drink.

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