Amid a doubling of drunk driving cases and increasing concern at the effects of alcohol abuse, President David Granger has promised action in the long term to deal with the scourge.
There is currently no national plan in place to tackle alcohol abuse and Guyanese continue to drink excessively, with the festive season likely to see an uptick in alcohol sales. For this year so far, police stats show that the drunk driving cases taken to court are more than double those of last year.
In a recent interview, Granger described alcohol abuse as “one of two evils” that the country has to contain. His government is very concerned about excessive drinking and the effects it is having on the country, he said while assuring that over time, measures will be put in place to deal with it.
The big question though is when, particularly since this scourge has been eating away at this country for decades and alcohol consumption is on the rise. The previous administration had taken note of this state of affairs but nothing much was done.
Alcohol abuse has been linked to road deaths, crimes, issues in relation to personal health and the health care system, depression, and suicide, while the family, finances and the economy are also impacted. Persons continue to lament that like cigarettes, alcohol is big business.
A bill to ban smoking in public places has been proposed and alcohol abuse advocates say that similar attention needs to be paid to alcohol consumption as the short term and long terms effects can be equally devastating.
Granger told Stabroek News that by his calculations, traffic accidents constitute one of the ten biggest causes of deaths in Guyana. He said when one looks at the cost of traffic accidents, not only fatalities but persons who are injured – some for life – they see that many of the injuries are caused not by speeding, but by being under the influence of alcohol.
“I must be concerned. Yes, I am concerned about alcohol consumption,” he said. The president added that alcohol abuse also places an addition burden on the healthcare system and there is loss of income during hospitalization, among others issues.
Granger pointed out that even if a person does not get involved in vehicular accidents, alcohol abuse can have harmful effects on the body. “It is a form of poison and as a young journalist myself I have seen preserved livers, people actually develop cirrhosis of the liver and other ailments as a result of alcoholism,” he said.
At a social level, it is evident that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to family problems which are fuelled by the amount of money being spent to purchase alcohol, the president added. This, he said, would deprive the family of proper nutrition. “There are lots of problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption but I would say yes I am concerned and I expect in the fullness of time there will be measures to restrict the consumption of alcohol in order to protect society from the impact,” he asserted.
Told that concerns have been expressed that government has made the ban on smoking in public places a priority when alcohol abuse is more widespread, Granger said he does not have the figures to show which of these has the worst impact.
“They are two evils and you are asking me to choose the lesser of two evils. Smoking is dangerous to your health…it destroys the liver, cause breathing problems, it has precipitated cancers. One may be slower, if you are drunk and you drive your car into a post you may die immediately but if you smoke, you may die eventually from ill effects of smoking. I don’t know what the numbers are so it is not a matter of me choosing which evil to deal with. I would say that in due course we should try to remove both scourges,” he said.
Drinking before age 12
Minister of Health Dr George Norton told Stabroek News that excessive drinking among youths is troubling. He related that it was recently found that children attending school in Bartica are consuming alcohol before reaching age 12.
He recalled that a few months ago in response to a media report on a number of attempted suicides at a school in the Region Seven community, a government team investigated. He said when school children under 12 years were asked if they already had their first taste of alcohol, almost everyone put their hand up.
Generally, most youths would have their first shot of alcohol by age 14, the minister said. He added that although they may not drink regularly, when they do, it is excessive, according to what studies have shown.
“They may drink once a month but when they drink they make up for the rest of the month,” Norton asserted.
Asked if the Ministry has a plan to deal with youths and alcohol, he said this is something that will be looked at as it is cause for concern. “It is not because it is my idea but it is just that we are going to carry on from what has already been proven and tested,” he said. Norton added that a presidential commission is going to be set up where youths will be targeted to participate in activities that would lead them away from alcohol consumption.
The minister pointed out that in Guyana like many countries, alcohol is sold and produced by private entities. According to Norton, it is known that very few governments try to regulate alcohol and monitor the activities of these private entities in the interest of public health. However, he said, in the interest of public health, the ministry can control access to alcohol through a policy which will include the government monopolisation of the business, limiting the hours and days for the sale of alcohol and enforcement of the minimum purchasing age.
There is no need to make a special effort to see the harm alcohol abuse is causing in Guyana, Norton said. “We just have to look at our road accidents and we will see the harmful effects of alcohol…road deaths are one of the most blatant harmful effects. It (alcohol) will cause violence, both interpersonal and domestic violence, and would include injuries not only from traffic accidents but also in the workplace, emotional distress and we know this can lead to depression and which results in the main cause of suicide and economic instability where persons find themselves in more financial difficulties because of the purchase of alcohol,” he said.
Alcohol abuse is a leading risk factor for deaths and disability, Norton said. He added that it also results in low productivity in the workplace, more arrests and property damage, more job losses and increased visits to health centres.
In terms of the additional burden to the health sector, he said “that really sucks at the economy of any country especially in Guyana where health services are basically free.”
The minister added that consideration has to be given to limiting alcohol use by indigenous peoples relating that at one time, there was an alcohol related death in Baramita, Region One every six weeks.
Women and drinking
Excessive drinking among women has also been on the increase.
Noting that leaders within the APNU+AFC coalition have expressed concerns at the country’s alcohol consumption level, Norton said while the measures to tackle it might not be the same as what is being done with smoking in public places, there needs to be some control over the consumption of alcohol.
“I think everybody who has suffered a loss because of alcohol would be in agreement with me. As government we have three things to look at: limiting the physical availability of alcohol to the public, restricting marketing and the sale of alcohol, and increasing the price of alcohol through taxation,” he said.
“We have got to prioritise public health and well-being over commercial interests and we must place health in the centre of all our policies,” Norton stressed while noting that society accepts excessive drinking as “part of our culture and ignore the ill effects of alcohol.”
At the moment, he said, the ministry has no proper statistics on alcohol abuse and this is not looked at separately but is placed under a broad heading. According to Norton, statistics in relation to the excessive consumption of alcohol show that this has increased over the last five years in the Caribbean from 17.9% to 29.6% for men and from 4.6 % to 13% for women.
DUI campaign stepped up
Meanwhile, Traffic Chief, Superintendent Dion Moore says his department is up to full strength and has increased its manning of the streets in a strengthened campaign to catch those persons driving under the influence.
He disclosed that between January 1 and November 30, 2015, the Traffic Department has been able to place 2218 persons before the courts for Driving under the Influence (DUI) as compared to the 902 cases for the same period last year.
Moore told Stabroek News that the police are very concerned about alcohol abuse, particularly in cases where persons consume alcohol and then drive when they are above the legal limit.
“We are concerned because as long as you are under the influence of alcohol your vision will be impaired and it will be difficult for you to have maximum control of your vehicle. In the event of any eventuality or sudden movement it would increase your risk of being involved in an accident. So we are concerned,” he emphasised.
Asked about the department’s plan as it relates to excessive drinking during this festive period, Moore said excessive drinking is something that can be avoided and all drivers are being advised to ensure they imbibe at home or if this is done at another place, ensure they have a designated driver and if not, take a taxi home.
Moore assured that the force has an adequate stock of breathalyzers. According to the Traffic Chief, in anticipation of an increase in drunk driving, the department has ensured that all ranks are available for a vigorous enforcement campaign. He said all the ranks who were on annual vacation leave have returned to work. “The force is on full strength operating in all of the divisions. There will be an increase in patrol presence and ranks would be seen more hours than normal,” he said.
The police official indicated that on a regular basis, ranks from headquarters will be deployed to supplement the various divisions and a special task force operates from Friday to Sunday.
In terms of DUI, he said `A’ Division is of the most concern followed by `B’ and `C’ divisions. Moore said the division with the least drivers caught driving under the influence is `E’ Division (Linden and Kwakwani). Asked if additional ranks would be deployed in `A’ and `B’ divisions to help tackle drunk driving, Moore said this is the reasoning behind the establishment of the task force.
“One of the main purpose is for them to conduct DUI,” he said. He added that the Force has also increased its daytime and nighttime road blocks and it is envisioned that this will help with detecting and enforcing the law when it comes to drunk driving. He said that once the ranks recognise that a driver may be under the influence, the breathalyzers will be used.
He also said the police need the public’s help in ensuring that inducements for ranks to look the other way are not tolerated. According to Moore, once the department receives such complaints even if it is done anonymously, the information will be passed to the Office of Professional Responsibility for investigation.
“I am urging members of the public to work with the police to let us know when ranks behave unprofessional,” he said. This also extends to ranks being spotted consuming alcohol while on duty, he added.
Moore was adamant that the name and shame campaign is working. According to him, when someone sees their face in the newspaper, they are concerned about the embarrassment this will cause their relatives, friends and work mates.
He said the increase in DUI charges is as a result of the force’s “rigid enforcement” in 2015. Asked if there ought to be harsher penalties for drunk driving, the traffic chief said while he does not believe they are too low, once police continue the enforcement and get the desired results, it will bring about a decline in accidents.
Police stats released earlier this month show that up to November 30, out of 112 fatal accidents, 17 were a direct result of DUI.