Guyanese consume about 5.8 litres of alcohol annually per capita, Health Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy said, adding that his ministry has begun to tackle the issue, through education and plans are in train to address it legislatively.
Ramsammy reiterated that alcohol abuse puts a heavy burden on the nation’s economy and its human resources. Alcohol abuse endangers health and it has been found to be the cause of many fatal accidents.
The minister acknowledged that while the issue should have been addressed seriously a long time ago his ministry will spare nothing to holistically take it in hand now.
The minister told Stabroek News that alcohol use is also a major issue among the country’s youths and as such the ministry will be targeting schools and families as well. Ramsammy said a recent survey done among boys between the ages of 13 and 15 found that some 46% of those surveyed admitted to having used alcohol at least once in their lives which basically means they’d tried it. However, 40% of that group said they drank enough to become intoxicated while 22% said using the substance had gotten them into trouble with their families and others in authority.
A survey of both males and females of the same age group found that 36% used it once, 28% became intoxicated and 17% got into trouble as a result of its use. Ramsammy said the survey clearly showed that boys imbibe more often than girls and to combat this, the ministry intends to effect programmes in schools. However, he said the laws need to be strengthened to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children.
Health promotion centre
According to Ramsammy his ministry has established a health promotion centre to alert people to the dangers that result from the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. He said while the centre’s objective is to eradicate the use of tobacco and narcotics the same approach is not taken for alcohol use; rather it would be advocating restraint and, for youth, abstention.
The minister said the unit has been in place for about a year but the ministry is now recruiting staff. And, while he said the consumption rate in Guyana is extremely high the ministry will still be conducting a study to ascertain the exact consumption rate and the effects of alcohol abuse in Guyana.
Health and social
Ramsammy said that while the public is aware of the harmful effects of tobacco use the same does not obtain for the use of alcohol. He said whatever personal benefits persons think they get from consuming alcohol, the negatives outweigh them by far. The minister pointed out that alcohol abuse can cause cirrhosis of the liver, reproductive problems and it can create difficulties for pregnant women if consumed during gestation as well as lead to birth defects.
“We have to work with the families and the schools and encourage people not to use alcohol,” Ramsammy said. He also said there is need for some form of regulation which would, among other things, prohibit a shop owner from selling alcohol to a person who is clearly intoxicated.
Ramsammy also said the issue of drinking and driving needs to be addressed in a firm and condign manner but this can only be done through regulation.
Guyana is still to pass the law that would enable the police force to use breathalysers which would definitively reveal if a person was driving while intoxicated. The law is also expected to stipulate penalties for those who are found guilty of such.
The minister said that worldwide alcohol abuse is the leading cause of disabilities whether it is due to an accident or a health problem. “So one of the mandates of the health promotion unit to is to ensure all of these messages are taken to the schools, churches, families among others.”
Ramsammy said the ministry’s next goal is treatment which would be implemented through the mental health programme. An alcohol anonymous (AA) programme is expected to be included in that programme.
He said there has always been treatment for alcoholism; that is psychiatric treatment for those who sought it but the ministry would be taking other measures to offer support programmes for persons who abuse alcohol.
Ramsammy said a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) already provide counselling for those persons but they are not extensive enough.
He said there is need to make such services more accessible to persons nationwide and that this is what the ministry will be focusing on. “But these are all long-term plans, while I would like to see them come on stream tomorrow it would take time,” he said. At the same time Ramsammy is encouraging more NGOs to address the issue adding that though many of them focus on HIV/AIDS alcoholism can be included in their programmes. Ramsammy said he would encourage such an initiative as alcoholism has a direct link to risky sexual behaviours which exposes persons to the infection.
Health protection bill
Ramsammy also said that a health protection bill has been drafted and it is now being reviewed. He noted that the bill will address the licensing for persons to sell alcohol; the conditions under which it is sold and who can make purchase. The time of day when a person can buy alcohol may also be included in the bill as persons have been known to visit rum shops from as early as 6 am and this issue, too, needs to be addressed.
The bill will also state whether a licence gives a person the right to sell alcohol 24 hours per day.
When this newspaper interviewed the minister on the issue, around this same time last year he had indicated that alcohol and alcohol abuse cost the health sector some $500M a year.