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Alcohol: let’s drink in the reality

The Health Department is contemplating setting up clinics in Paceville and possibly in other hotspots to respond to the astronomically high demand for hospital services by drunk revellers at weekends. This bit of news, from the Times of Malta last week, has once again focussed attention on the need to examine the fraught relationship between alcohol and our society.

The situation which the ministry plans to address – essentially binge drinking as part of entertainment culture – is but one of the many aspects of the relationship which is causing a great deal of concern to health authorities and those responsible for the welfare of families and young people.

Studies like the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), which focus on youths of 15 or 16, have shown conclusively that young people in Malta overindulge quite severely: we are quite regularly at or quite near the top of the ranks on several indicators of abusive drinking.

The problem becomes even more serious when one considers that the legal drinking age in Malta is 17.

Over the last four years some important aspects of abusive alcohol use among teenagers have declined, but despite the fact that the government has been quick to claim the credit, the real reason that numbers are on a downward spiral all over Europe probably has little to do with successful prevention measures.

We must not think excessive drinking is the sole preserve of teenagers. The hedonistic culture which exalts entertainment to quasi-divine status and considers profuse amounts of alcohol indispensable to an evening out has exerted its pernicious influence on people of all ages. The most recent European Health Survey Interview for Malta shows thousands of people over 35 consume alcohol in risky amounts practically every day of the week.

How should the State respond? First, it should make sure it is aware of the extent of the problem. While existing statistics give a fairly good idea of the general picture, the Ministry of Health should consider conducting a proper and detailed prevalence survey.

Second, there should be information campaigns for the more problematic sectors showing the dangers of alcohol. In this regard, media literacy enabling consumers to understand the subtleties of advertising is of the essence: the alcohol industry is able to deploy considerable resources in devising messages which entice young and old to start or increase alcohol use. Only by equipping consumers to see through advertising can the authorities hope to stave off the inevitable negative effects of higher consumption.

Third, as the World Health Organisation and health experts at European level advocate, availability must be curtailed. These bodies insist that limiting availability is the most effective measure in reducing the harm caused by alcohol. One need hardly point out that nobody is advocating prohibition – but a recognition that ubiquity inevitably translates into higher use.

While a reduction in outlets and opening times will help, by far the most efficacious measure would be to tackle the affordability of alcohol. The introduction of minimum unit pricing should be very seriously considered. This is not a tax, since not a penny of the increase in the cost to the consumer ends up in the government coffers. Ireland, Estonia and (after years of strong opposition by the alcohol industry) Scotland have introduced this measure and alcohol abuse is expected to decline in the coming years.

Fourth, the minimum drinking age should be raised to 18. It used to be argued that in southern Europe, it was customary for teenagers to start being socialised into drinking appropriately and therefore there was no need for regulation. The globalisation of the binge-drinking phenomenon has put paid to that starry notion. In fact, Portugal and Italy have had to raise the age in a bid to offset rampant teenage alcohol abuse. In Malta the problem is even more serious, hence the need for stricter regulation.

Malta is the only EU country without an alcohol policy. This shameful state of affairs should be addressed as soon as possible. It simply does not follow that any self-respecting country can hope to limit the harm done by such a dangerous substance without having an organically linked set of policy measures set out in a policy document available to all those involved in providing educational, preventive, legal and treatment services in the field. This so they can regulate their efforts in a manner coherent with the government’s own objectives.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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