It is welcome news that the Ministry of Health recognizes the disease that is alcoholism as a national public health issue and is planning strategies to address it. It is unsatisfactory that it has taken so long and that so many lives had to be lost before there was public acknowledgement of this. It must also be sorely disappointing to women’s rights and anti-violence activists, who have said repeatedly that alcoholism contributes to domestic abuse and other forms of violence and murder, that Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy ignored, or chose not to address, this aspect of it in his interview with this newspaper, published earlier this week.

Whether or not Minister Ramsammy and his staff had alcoholism on the radar prior to this announcement, it will appear to stakeholders and others to be a knee-jerk reaction to the unmitigated carnage on the roads. And in fact, it was following a spate of road deaths that the minister made the revelation that the Ministry of Health would “spare nothing” to take alcohol abuse in hand. The Stabroek News report said Ramsammy reiterated that alcohol abuse puts a heavy burden on the nation’s economy and its human resources, endangers health and has been found to be the cause of many fatal accidents.

However, despite any disenchantment with what is apparently a reaction to road fatalities and a very slow one at that, one must suppose that it would be better to have the issue addressed late rather than never. And, given that the ministry plans to tackle it through education and legislation, one must also hope that this would be done correctly since what tends to happen when there is national outrage about an issue is that the response is emotional rather than rational and it is often the wrong one.

The per capita consumption of alcohol should not be the Ministry of Health’s concern, unless it is planning to promote prohibition. And alcohol use in schools should ultimately be tackled by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Health can and should have an input, but it is the Education Ministry’s responsibility to put measures in place to deal with any alcohol abuse that exists in schools, whether by students or staff.

Legislation has been passed to decide the ages by which young people can have sex or vote as well as the mandatory age for education and the same should apply to alcohol consumption. Minister Ramsammy has admitted that while there have been campaigns to stamp out the use of other addictives, such as tobacco and narcotic drugs among young people, the same has not been done with alcohol.

Perhaps, this is because it is well known that alcohol abuse or alcoholism does not necessarily follow the use of alcohol. Someone who drinks an occasional beer, glass of wine or cocktail or even does this every weekend, can be termed a user. On the other hand, someone who cannot get through the day without alcohol and does not stop drinking until his/her faculties are impaired is an abuser. However, the quantity, frequency and regularity of alcohol consumption required to develop alcoholism varies among individuals. Scientists have established that a person’s genes, mental and emotional health and social environment determine their tendency to develop alcoholism.

But this is not to say that a person who can “hold” his or her drinks might not be damaging his or her health by consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. And this is definitely within the Ministry of Health’s purview. The Journal of the American Medical Association defines alcoholism as “a primary, chronic disease characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking.” Education about this and treatment for it is without a doubt drastically needed.

And with regard to education, according to this newspaper’s report, Minister Ramsammy said also that whatever personal benefits persons think they get from “consuming alcohol”, the negatives outweigh them by far. Yet, research conducted by Harvard Medical School and published in respected medical journals says that an occasional single glass of red wine can lower the risk of heart disease and some cancers. The publishers of the research make it clear that they are not advocating that teetotallers start drinking; neither is this editorial. The message here is one of moderation.