Last Friday, the Minister of Security Khemraj Ramjattan broached the topic of raising the age limit from eighteen years to twenty-one years for purchasers of alcohol. At present the law states that anyone under the age of eighteen is prohibited from purchasing alcohol, but it also says that anyone over the age of sixteen can buy or be given alcohol if it is consumed with a meal provided it is in part of the premises that is not a bar.
The topic of the sale of alcohol and age limits is almost taboo here, an acknowledged ‘rum drinking’ society where the ability to consume alcohol is seen as a measure of a man’s machismo. The discussion of the ills of the consumption of alcohol is often swept under the carpet in public, and left for the commentators and writers to pound away at while their intended audience ignores the warnings and ‘fires another one.’
The debate has been gathering steam in the last few years with the incumbent government enforcing the law that restricts the sale of alcohol after 2 am in 2015, and the sociologists and medical experts screaming for serious action to be taken in this area. Statistics whose reliability is of course subject to scrutiny, have appeared in the media in relation to the side effects on society in the areas of under-age drinking, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, drinking and driving, fatal vehicular accidents related to alcohol consumption and suicide, to mention a few of the spin-offs.
One visible statistic needing no expert to compile or confirm is the alarming increase in alcohol consumption by the younger generation, both men and women, in the 18 to 25 age group. A quick tour of the city any Friday or Saturday night reveals a scene of hard drinking young Guyanese who have acquired a preference for scotch, rum and brandy, over beer and vodka, the choice of their immediate predecessors. Apparently, this a growing problem nationwide.
The Minister has thrown the subject in the ring again, and the inevitable discussion will ensue. ‘I can vote but I can’t buy a drink?’ will be the instant shout from the aggrieved would-be drinkers stuck in the wrong age group. Will raising the age limit deter the excessive drinking? Or will making it illegal just fuel the urge to drink alcohol?
Curfews on drinking times and stipulating age limits might not necessarily be the solution to what is a cultural inheritance deeply engrained in our society. We were all made aware whilst growing up of the national pride in our world famous rum, the much sought after ‘good ole Demerara’ and we could hardly wait to come of age, in the much stricter environment of that time, to join the party where the adults always seemed to be having the time of their lives, singing, dancing, and telling jokes as laughter filled the air. Our national pride was boosted every time one of the local manufacturers won another gold medal at an international exhibition or rum convention. The contribution of the sale of alcohol overseas to the country’s foreign exchange coffers was not to be overlooked in any small way.
The dark side of alcohol was never discussed in public, and the relative or the neighbour who was an obvious alcoholic was quickly dismissed as ‘having a problem,’ for which no explanation was forthcoming. Illnesses often related to the excessive consumption were explained as ‘old people sickness’ and not used as warning signs to the upcoming generation.
Now is the time for us, yes, us, the mature generation, the leaders, to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves the difficult question, are we on the verge of a national crisis? Is the situation slipping away from us in front of very eyes? If not, what are we going to do – yes do, not plan ‒ to avert this becoming a runaway train?
First, we have to acknowledge that we have contributed to the prevailing culture. Yes, most of us when we were younger got behind the wheel and drove when we shouldn’t have, and some of us are still guilty of the act; after all we have gotten away with it for thirty years, why change now? We have to set the example; someone will have to be the designated driver for the night. We have be our brother’s keeper, we have to stop our friends from driving when inebriated, take away their car keys, drive them home ourselves, or call a taxi for them.
The sociologists and medical experts will have to make children aware of the dangers and ill-effects of excessive consumption. The critical question for them is how soon to introduce the topic? Ten? Eleven? Twelve? The prime targeted age group, the young generation, and our best resource, full of life and indestructible, is the real problem here. How do we confront this? There is no straight easy textbook answer here, this culture cannot be changed overnight. We all have to contribute here by setting the right example.
The one area of the law we should be addressing is drinking and driving. Here we can learn from North America, and their well-documented statistics on the subject. Initial violations of driving over the allowable alcohol limit should be met with an automatic one year suspension of the offender’s driver’s licence and a heavy fine. Second time lawbreakers should receive a five year suspension and a heavier fine. Three time offenders should lose their licences forever. Any violations should be dealt with time spent in jail. Insurance companies should make the acquisition of coverage for drinking and driving delinquents drastically expensive.
Everyone has a role to play here. After all, we have the best rum in the world and anyone who wishes should be able to savour a shot or two in moderation, from time to time.