Alcohol Control and Celebrating without Fear

Alcohol Control and Celebrating without Fear post thumbnail image

Source: WHO Timor – Leste/2019

At the beginning of last month, Fundasaun Mahein joined Timor-Leste in celebrating Loron Matebian, or All Souls’ Day, as families came together to honor their dead and reunite with the living. However, this joy was accompanied by frequent and disturbing reports of violence, particularly in Maliana and Baucau. FM is distressed that one of Timor-Leste’s most important holidays, and one sacred to our ancestors, is now threatening to become synonymous not only with family and a return to our native soil, but with violence. Loron Matebian is meant to honor our dead, not add to the body count. And now, as we enter December and look towards the holidays ahead, FM worries that the month’s joy will be interrupted by yet more bloodshed.

Loron Matebian’s violence has been largely blamed on the martial arts groups fueled by alcohol: a not improbable conclusion, given the free flow of alcohol typical of the holiday—or any holiday in Timor-Leste. No social gathering in our nation is considered complete without liquor, with the importance of the gathering running in direct proportion to the liberal availability of drink. Combine this with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2019 designation of Timor-Leste as the country with the least restrictive alcohol regulations in Southeast Asia, and the result is potential disaster. In the view of FM, this threatens to create a perfect storm, one where our joyous occasions, lacking the backing of any state-mandated and enforced regulations, risk an undercurrent of violence.

As things stand, Timor-Leste takes something of a freewheeling approach to alcohol. As the WHO noted, Timor-Leste is alone among our regional peers in having no minimum drinking or buying age, alcohol sales restrictions, or limitations on alcohol-related advertisements. A parent choosing to send his or her five-year-old child out for a bottle of overproof vodka, and then pouring a shot for that child, would be perched as comfortably inside the law as in the realm of the absurd. Then there is the dizzying fray of tua mutin and tua sabu moonshine, home-brewed palm wine that varies as widely in quality as it does in alcohol content, and is believed to account for well over half of all alcohol consumption—making it a robust enough industry to support entire families and communities, all while remaining innocent of regulation or even data collection.

FM is perturbed by this lack of regulation and alcohol control measures within our country, not least because most Timorese are left with little recourse when alcohol-related disaster does strike. Even in countries with far more wealth and infrastructure, alcohol-related injury and illness takes a heavy toll: in Australia, the social cost of alcohol misuse was over $14 billion in 2010 alone. A road accident caused by a drunk driver may result in death whether it occurs here or in Australia, but in Timor-Leste (which, at $80 per capita, spends less on healthcare of any country in the world) that probability skyrockets. The potential lethality of alcohol extends beyond the immediate tolls of heavy drinking—accidents, beatings, violent disputes, alcohol poisoning—to the longer-term health consequences: increased risk of colon, breast, and liver cancers; cirrhosis; high blood pressure and heart failure; anxiety and depression; and even dementia. Consequences fall on our citizens with far less leeway than they do in other parts of the world.

Much attention is paid to the public grotesqueries of alcohol abuse: the traffic accidents and deaths; the social mandate for a free flow of liquor at weddings, parties, and cultural ceremonies, leading some events to devolve into alcohol-fueled fisticuffs. But far more ubiquitous is the man whose public drunkenness results not in a dispute on the street, but in his own home with the abuse of his wife and children (the pronoun is not accidental: while 38% of Timorese women experience violence at the hands of their husbands, only 6% of wives initiate violence—and, even then, the most oft-cited common denominator is violence and drunkenness on the part of the husbands). According to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey, 60% of women who reported that their husbands get drunk “very often” also reported violence; among those husbands who get drunk “sometimes,” that number came to 45.1%. Roughly a quarter of teetotalers—26.1%—beat their wives: a sobering statistic, but one that stings differently when stacked next to 60%. In a cruelly predictable irony, a 2010 report by the civil society organization BELUN found that many instances of domestic abuse began with women protesting their husbands’ or sons’ decision to spend money on alcohol instead of family necessities. This situation is only exacerbated by the collective trauma of Timor’s past, with many scholars pointing to upticks in domestic violence and alcohol use with the advent of independence, as freedom fighters returned home with their memories and shellshock. Such are the inheritances of occupation.

However, if alcohol remains unregulated and uncontrolled, FM’s fears are for Timor-Leste’s future—not least because of increasing alcohol use by young people. In June, the coach of the Timor-Leste national football team, Norio Tsukitate, made headlines when he blamed Timor-Leste’s brutal loss to Malaysia in the first round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers on the alcohol abuse of his senior players. More private but equally lurid tragedies are the side effects of alcohol use such as dysphasia, delays in cognitive development, and suicide that fall with particular force on the young, along with the battalion of ailments that follow heavy drinking at any age. Moreover, Timor’s young are drinking differently than their parents, with BELUN citing a worrying trend towards mixing drugs with alcohol use.

Even so, there is reason for cautious optimism: only 12.9% of Timorese young people between the ages of 15-19 drink (slightly less than neighboring Indonesia, at 13.1%, and a sharp nose-dive from Australia’s 69.3%). These numbers dovetail with the observations of Bairo Pite Clinic’s Dr. Daniel Murphy, who noted to FM that many young people, beyond busying themselves with the noble pursuits of nation building, simply lack the money to drink: disaster averted by economics.

Maintaining this optimism, however, will rely on government action. Fortunately, instituting regulations for alcohol control does not push us into uncharted waters. Timor-Leste already boasts a National Council for Tobacco Control, to which alcohol would make a natural addition. Then there are those regulations for which other nations have already served as guinea pigs: establishing a minimum drinking age, for one, but also options such as raising taxes on alcohol—Timor’s current value added tax in alcohol is 2.5%, less than any other Southeast Asian nation—developing treatment programs, and creating sales restrictions and ceilings on the alcohol content of beverages. In particular, a Ministry of Commerce official who spoke with FM recommended banning advertisements for alcohol as a “best buy” policy, particularly in curbing young drinking.

These are things that can be done. The question is of doing them—and not just in terms of instituting new regulations to fanfare and accolades. Curbing the negative impacts of alcohol also requires the government of Timor-Leste to dust off and enforce was is already in place. FM has continually expressed concern around trafficking over the land border with Indonesia, which remains fairly porous—and which also provides a steady source of low-cost, bootlegged liquor, often accompanied by drugs. Timor-Leste may have a blood alcohol concentration limit for driving (0.05%) on the books, but rare is the Dili driver who can recall this ever being enforced.

However, one of the most pernicious impediments to alcohol control is simply one of data. A side effect of a lack of regulation is a lack of statistics: although several organizations have made valiant attempts to quantify alcohol use, reliable numbers remain thin, making it difficult for politicians to craft arguments for alcohol control and catching Timor in something of a chicken-and-egg problem: a lack of knowledge of the scope of the disaster precluding efforts to address it. To not discuss alcohol control is to not see it—and the unseen is the easiest to abuse.

Part of addressing the problem is knowing the scope of it, to which end FM urges a systemic, nation-wide baseline survey on alcohol use. As an organization that fights for transparency, FM believes the most dangerous threat to be that which remains unseen. Recently, there have been murmurs (particularly from the Ministry of Health) around creating an alcohol control policy, which FM salutes: however, our appreciation is a cautious one, as even the best of policies is useless without enforcement. Most of all, FM hopes to celebrate Christmas—and next year’s Loron Matebian—with Timor-Leste in a spirit of remembrance and joy that is free of fear.

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