BETWEEN 1884 and 1963, alcohol was prohibited in the territories of Papua and New Guinea.
That was when Britain claimed rights over the Papuan half of the country and New Guinea was declared a German trust territory.
It was part of the discriminatory edicts of the time and like most such edicts, Papua New Guineans’ ingenuity in working around them are legendary.
But perhaps it is one practice, which, in hindsight might as well have remained prohibited.
Once the prohibition ended in 1963, alcohol quickly became a part of national history and practice, not the least because the members of the Australian administration which took over the territory of Papua and New Guinea, were themselves not averse to drinking into the wee hours and continuously for days as that too, was an unofficial past time of the Australian people.
Today, alcohol is big business, from SP Holdings which brews the beer to the retail of SP products and other imported alcoholic beverages including spirits and wine.
Alcohol is to be found in most gatherings and celebrations from birthdays to weddings and even some church gatherings. It is entrenched in national life. And it is a big Problem – with a capital “P”.
It is proven worldwide that alcohol contributes to health problems when taken in excess.
In PNG, it has caused tribal fights, broken marriages, motor vehicle accidents, loss of properties and deaths. A two-year study on alcohol undertaken for the PNG Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research (IASER), the forerunner to the National Research Institute, reported that alcohol consumption contributed to:
* Much trauma, particularly caused by motor vehicle accidents;
* Binge drinking extracted a significant public health toll; and
* National trends indicated that alcoholic cirrhosis and cancer of the upper respiratory and upper digestive tracts will contribute to increased mortality among Papua New Guineans.
That report was made in 1988. Since then, drinking has continued unabated through the severe economic crisis of the 1990s and the early 2000s, caused hundreds and perhaps even thousands of motor traffic accidents and many tribal conflicts.
Legally manufactured and sold, alcohol has been joined by a long list of illegally brewed alcohol which are now popularly referred to as “steam”, the same gained from the manner in which the alcohol is extracted. Nobody can fathom just how much alcoholic content these crudely made alcohol have.
Alcohol is joined by another freely grown and available mate, spak brus or marijuana and the combination is lethal, literally in many instances.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Abal’s call last Friday to ban alcohol in Wabag, rather than declare a fighting zone covering the electorate (his electorate) as the Enga provincial government has done therefore has merit but as Government minister, he must put the issue in the bigger context rather than look at it as it affects his electorate.
Indeed, he, more than other leaders, is in a powerful position to have a look at all the root causes of problems not just in Wabag, but all over PNG and conduct studies to see how alcohol contributes to these problems.
Alcohol has been a daunting issue for many administrations. A few provincial governments have sought total bans covering their provinces but these have rarely worked.
A long hard look at all aspects of alcohol, from the industry and its contributions to the economy, and to things such as sports sponsorship to the socio-economic and the health cost of it would be more welcome. Health measures include providing for homes and resources for chronic alcoholics, detoxication homes and psychiatric treatment for trauma victims.
It entails a long-term strategy, because alcohol is here to stay. It requires co-operation from the industry. Indeed, it is inaccurate to suggest that alcohol causes problems. It is abuse of alcohol which causes problems.
Mr Abal said: “The most appropriate action which the provincial government should take is to ban liquor because abuse of liquor leads to drunkenness and consumption of homebrew.”
As Mr Abal well knows alcohol has been banned in Enga before. It has not worked. It was introduced in Simbu, in the Western Highlands and is now supposed to be in force in the Southern Highlands.
They do not work as well as they should.
A far deeper look at the problem is warranted and the sooner it is done, the better.