Ramsammy signals stiffer laws to fight alcohol abuse

Report says legal framework in place
The crippling impact of irresponsible alcohol consumption is a problem Guyana has tackled for years Health Minister Dr. Leslie Ramsammy said yesterday but he declared the day is fast approaching when the current laws, “some of which are archaic”, would be altered.

But there are no timelines in place for when new legislation could reach the National Assembly. Minister Ramsammy was however optimistic it could be soon when he yesterday opened a National Stakeholders Workshop on the Legal and Regulatory Framework related to alcohol consumption and its associated problems at Cara Lodge yesterday. He called on the stakeholders gathered to conduct a thorough review of the current laws since the health sector is pushing towards key changes.

Ramsammy again called for a review of the taxes on alcohol saying they are not high enough and that as a result access is easier. He said the ills of drinking irresponsibly are many, pointing to alcohol playing a role in the evolution of chronic diseases; adversely affecting sexual reproductive health; driving domestic violence; aiding in the spread of HIV/AIDS and resulting in underdevelopment generally. “It is not merely a public health issue, it is a developmental issue”, Ramsammy stressed.

“A lot of people lead disabled lives because of alcohol….” the Minister said as he explained how inappropriate alcohol consumption has crippled people. He noted that accidents caused by drunk drivers have left many people crippled and others dead. The Minister spoke passionately on the subject while driving home the point that critical changes are to be made to “protect the society from its ills”.

The one-day workshop, which was the initiative of the Ministry of Health and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), essentially focused on an interim report on the current laws which was prepared by attorney-at-law and President of the Bar Association, Teni Housty. The report, completed in July this year, takes a comprehensive look at what is currently on the books while also offering a comparative analysis on what the law is in other Caribbean countries and other jurisdictions.

It concluded that the legal framework to tackle alcohol consumption in Guyana exists though in some areas it needed updating and collating. Ramsammy hailed the interim report as “impressive” and he urged stakeholders to read it thoroughly and make recommendations on strategies to be included. Prior to his comments about increasing taxes on alcohol a participant openly disagreed with this policy option saying the desire to drink is not likely to fade and suggested that people might turn to criminal acts to get a drink- it was the sort of frank discussions on the issue that the Minister repeatedly called for.

Dr. Kathleen Israel of PAHO made similar calls as Ramsammy’s when she briefly commented that alcohol has too many related problems in the society. She emphasized that the focus is on responsible consumption, and she pointed out that the laws addressing the issue must be sufficient in depth and scope to end the negative impacts.

In his report Housty addressed several key areas including raising awareness and political commitment; drink-driving policies; the availability of alcohol; pricing policies; harm reduction; marketing of alcohol beverages and monitoring and surveillance. He anchored his analysis using the local Constitution, spelling out that the Constitution recognizes health as a reasonable limitation on the exercise of constitutional rights.

The report said there is a foundation for political commitment which has been supported by initiatives in several areas, pointing out that the state must take positive steps to realize the objectives of public health. It said a substantial body of research evidence exists to show that introducing a low limit for blood-alcohol concentration reduces harm. Housty then lauded the Evidence and Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2008 recently put in place. The new law aims to curb driving under the influence of alcohol and makes provisions for breathalyzer tests.

“The success of legislation as a deterrent and the reduction of the incidence of drink-driving and its consequences largely depend on the likelihood and rapid imposition of penalties imposed on those driving under the influences of alcohol. Consistent enforcement by police departments using random, targeted or selective breath-testing, is essential and should be supported by sustained publicity and awareness campaigns”, the report quoted from a World Health Organisa-tion discussion paper on the subject.

On the issue of availability of alcohol, the report said regulating production and distribution of alcoholic beverages is shown to be an effective strategy for reducing harmful use of alcohol, particularly to protect young people and other vulnerable groups. As it regards pricing, it stated that price, especially when seen in relation to income rates, is an important determinant of alcohol consumption, and in many contexts, of the extent of alcohol-related problems. It mentioned too that alcohol is an integral part of promotions of events in Guyana and that there are presently no specific laws prohibiting alcohol being used for promoting events.

The report dealt in detail with the issues identified but made the preliminary conclusion that while the legal framework to deal with alcohol consumption exists, in some areas, there is a need for updating and collating, particularly, the provision under the Intoxicating Liquor Licensing Act and related Acts. It said too that regional and international laws, in this regard, become relevant.

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