Family Minister Dolores Cristina tomorrow forwards new proposals to a Cabinet sub-committee to strengthen drinking laws. MATTHEW VELLA reports on the start of the hard slog to protect minors from alcohol abuse
Interviewing Philip Fenech last week, the Malta Chamber of SMEs’ (GRTU) secretary for the entertainment sector, has unsurprisingly generated no sympathy amongst those actively fighting alcohol dependency. Fenech opposes increasing the drinking age from 16 to 18. He claims, somewhat unjustifiably, that young people need an outlet in life, drinking moderately being part of the growing experience.
In reality, Family Minister Dolores Cristina’s plans to raise the drinking age to 18 is hardly the end of the world. Surely some bar owners will lose a lot of money from it. But people like Joe Gerada, the chief executive of Appogg, the national social welfare agency, says it is these people who are exploiting young adolescents. Five years after Sedqa, the national drug agency, presented a policy intended to fighting alcohol abuse amongst minors, the government is ready to tighten the noose.
Not only will it outlaw selling alcohol to minors under 18, but it will also close all the other loopholes in the law, making it illegal for minors to consume alcohol, as well as making it illegal for an adult to give alcohol to a minor. It may not stop young people from drinking, but it will make it harder. It gives the police a better legal framework to prosecute. In 2005, just eight establishment owners were prosecuted for selling alcohol to minors. Cristina’s proposals strengthen the law by closing off the anomalies along the chain of distribution.
Establishment owners, those Philip Fenech say have invested millions to cater for the 16-18 age group, are surely going to cry foul. Morally, they are already disenfranchised. The 2003 ESPAD survey, carried out amongst the entire Maltese student cohort aged 15, is worrying: one-fifth of them consume alcohol every three days. Topping the entire list of 35 nations, 35 per cent of Maltese students were drinking wine more then three times a month, over and above the European average of 20 per cent. Another 43 per cent were drinking spirits more than three time a month.
And the island now ranks amongst the top five binge drinking nations. This is not the picture of a healthy youth, the one Fenech says we should have more faith in. Even more serious are the findings showing that three per cent of eleven-year-olds have been drunk once in their lifetime, going up to 8 per cent for 13-year-olds, and 16 per cent for 14-year-olds.
“Binge drinking in Malta today is more serious than the Nordic situation,” Emanuel Mangani, who has worked with alcoholics for the past 20 years, says. “You could call it a globalisation of culture that has also been exported to Malta. The trend is increasing across Europe, and it has grown phenomenally over here.”
As I listen to Mangani and Joe Gerada, at the Sedqa headquarters in Santa Venera,I think to myself how the 90s changed the face of Maltese society: the gradual escalation of the rave party, the obscure sin parties, ecstasy and the proliferation of the so-called Paceville generation, pleasantly jaded and inebriated. Now it faces a binge-drinking society of 17 and 18-year-olds. We’re number one in Europe.
Gerada says it is the financial interests of those who sell alcohol who fan the culture of binge drinking. “It’s not exactly an alcohol industry we talk about in Malta. It is the entertainment sector which works on young people through the indiscriminate advertising of alcohol, which targets minors. There is no control on the entry of minors into bars, and the sale of alcohol to under-16s is rampant.”
Bar owners will probably object, as even Philip Fenech states the problem no longer is as serious as it was eight years ago. But as early as 2003, ESPAD findings stated that 32 per cent of the entire student cohort aged 15 to 16 had consumed alcohol in a bar. Malta has the lowest minimum selling age for alcohol – 16 – and no minimum consumption age, ranking the lowest in regulation of the drinking age amongst the entire EU and the United States.
Tomorrow Monday, Dolores Cristina takes with her proposals to the Cabinet sub-committee which is hoped will drum up a new bill amending laws on the sale of alcohol. It comes after years of prolonged discussions, and not a minute too soon. Ironically, as Sedqa’s clinical director Dr George Grech says, it had to be the death of a 19-year-old university student on New Year’s Eve, who fell from the Valletta bastions after coming out of a party for a rest, that sparked the outrage at the rate of drinking amongst young people.
“It does not hold water to say that someone at 16 can handle alcohol,” Grech says. “It is not just the body that is developing. It’s also their personality. Every year we see the same thing happening on New Year’s Eve. It’s not that we are against the culture of parties, but against an entertainment that always causes harm, by getting people to want get smashed.”
“We don’t want to exculpate youths,” Gerada says, “but parents have to take responsibility here. ESPAD surveys show 21 per cent of schoolchildren drink at home. Children drink openly during village feasts at band clubs where their parents themselves are present. Parish priests should give out a strong message. I am stunned by the church’s omertà on this issue. We’re not saying families should teetotallers. We’re saying alcohol is an adult’s drink not to be consumed before 18. This is not some macho ritual. That is ignorance.”
A new “entertainment commission”, the kind of impromptu board that is convened soon after tragedies happen, has now been set up to examine the laws related to entertainment places. Mangani is on the board, along with Dr Joe Micallef Stafrace, Police Inspector Domenic Micallef, and Dr Cynthia Scerri Debono from the Attorney Generals’ office.
Together they are expected to re-examine the laws in a bid to reduce alcohol abuse and drug abuse “and other habits”, whatever these may be.
Nobody from the entertainment sector has been invited onto the board. The sparks are already flying.
And Mangani himself offers a hardened view of what has to be done to eradicate the alcoholic trends during early adolescence, maybe a sign of things to come. “Education is just one part. On its own it cannot work. Only coercion works, and that’s the unfortunate reality. There is a hedonistic culture putting pleasure ahead of health and the social good… with such ‘Nordic’ behaviour we should apply Nordic laws.”