EDITORIAL COMMENT: Smarter solutions needed for alcohol abuse

EDITORIAL COMMENT: Smarter solutions needed for alcohol abuse

Too many Zimbabweans drink far more alcohol than the limit. Too many drivers drink before they drive, causing a significant percentage of accidents and pregnant women should simply not drink or smoke.

So as a matter of public policy, efforts should be made to stop excessive drinking, driving while over the limit and drinking while pregnant. But the proposals now reportedly before the Government are unlikely to achieve any of these aims and could even make the problem worse.

One set of proposals is to bar alcohol sales at fixed times and on certain days. All this will do is ensure that those who enjoy drinking and find it hard to control their consumption will stock up at the times and on the days when they are allowed to buy. Few in this group are impulse drinkers. And even if their families look askance at their drinking they will simply keep their bottles hidden elsewhere and drink there.

So that proposal will do nothing for the problem drinkers and will cause great inconvenience to the many who do drink in moderation and will now also have to plan their alcohol purchases, buying and storing wine and beer to entertain guests, for example. The net result is likely to be a zero decline in alcohol consumption.

About the only probably positive benefit might be a decline in public drinking; those large groups that assemble in car parks outside bottle stores in the evenings might not be there at times and on days when sales are banned. But many will switch to shebeens, and limits on legal sales will boost illegal sales, or stock up and become secret drinkers.

Driving while over the limit will not be affected. Several countries have tried early closing of bars and the like and simply found themselves with drivers who drink faster at permitted hours. So there were more drunk drivers at times of busy traffic. The proposal to ban pregnant women from buying alcohol creates a plethora of problems. For a start, how is the till operator at a bottle store supposed to diagnose women customers? No till operators or bar keepers are qualified medical practitioners, and even if they were, they are not allowed to examine customers or perform pregnancy tests. And they are not allowed to ban all women under 40 years from buying alcohol unless they are an emaciated model in skin-tight clothes.

All it needs is a youngish woman lawyer of average weight refused a drink and a successful court case looms.

We need to remember our history. There was a time when black people were barred from buying “Western beer and liquor” and then were effectively barred in the evenings through the councils’ monopoly on alcohol sales in the only areas where they were allowed to live and drink.

All that happened was that illegal sales and shebeens flourished. At the same time, on the other side of town, only licensed bottle stores and bars could sell alcohol and bottle stores closed at 5pm. So people stocked up early and bar owners made a fortune from “off licence” sales. It was the total ineffectiveness of all these controls that forced even the colonial regime to give in and create a more sensible environment.

So how can the Government proceed.
If there is a problem of pregnant women drinking, and foetal damage can occur before a woman even suspects she is pregnant, then surely a health campaign is required. We need to stop pregnant women drinking, not stop them buying. It would not be hard to get the message across to all younger women that drinking while pregnant will harm their baby.

Almost all women go to some lengths to protect their babies and simply need to know the problem.
Drinking and driving is a police problem. Breathalysers are not expensive and can easily be funded at the beginning from fines they bring in. As the procedures for a court appearance are cumbersome and time consuming, and the full penalty, which can include the suspension or cancellation of a licence, needs the courts, it would probably be better at the beginning to randomly test a lot of drivers every night and charge those who flunk a respectable admission of guilt fine.

This would be a far more beneficial use of roadblocks, saving lives, rather than checking if drivers have a yellow reflective vest at 9am. Once the problem is under far more control the hold-outs can be taken to court.

Excessive drinking is a social problem. Again education is the only answer. Drunks are not funny and drunkenness should not be socially acceptable. We have done this before, as smokers who want to light up in public are well aware. We have stopped public smoking and can stop public drunkenness. That removes one problem while still allowing those who can control their drinking to have a drink when they wish. At the same time more support for families living with an alcoholic will help.

We are not opposed to the desired ends the reported proposals wish to achieve. We just think that they are a useless means; far better and more effective means are needed.

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