An Analysis By Michael Derek Roberts
By any and all counts there are more rum shops than churches in some countries in the Caribbean. For centuries, alcohol has been glorified in the region. Caribbean island nations are proud producers of some of the best rums in the world; Cruzan, Clarke’s Court, Mount Gay, Appleton, Captain Morgan and more. Caribbean men (and women) just love to drink. Weekdays and weekends, special holidays and early mornings you can find them at bars.
And too, rum is celebrated in popular culture: Soca, calypso, folk songs and even Christmas songs are all colored and tinged with rum. To be able to hold your liquor is a male badge of honor that comes with bragging rights. Before this new wave of rum drinkers took over, the seasoned drinkers had a name for such guys. They were called “grogists.” In fact, the more you can drink is the more of a man you are in Caribbean culture.
In most Caribbean islands it is not illegal to drink and drive. It’s not uncommon to see someone driving with a beer in his hand talking to a policeman on the side of the road. His (or her) biggest concern is that he/she would spill the drink. Yes, drinking is like a national sport in the Caribbean at times. When you have a new baby, you are duty-bound to have a drink-up on the momentous occasion. And at a wedding, funeral, christening, church confirmation, and graduation – any special occasion is a good occasion or excuse to drink.
So the million-dollar question is this: is alcoholism a problem in the Caribbean? Many others and I have long concluded that this is so. I have witnessed the devastating effects of alcohol abuse accross the Caribbean. I’ve seen people binge drink, pass out and do it over again the very next day. I have seen the reddish, dull look in the eyes of guys and gals that drink constantly every day. And I’ve seen the gradual deterioration in health and physical appearance of relatively young men and women that drink way too much.
But people of the Caribbean, my people, believe they are invincible. They think that they drive far better when they are rip-roaringly drunk. They boast that they can handle their liquor. I beg to differ. I believe they are fooling themselves. Caribbean people cannot hold their liquor better than anyone else. True, they might have more practice that resulted in them having a higher tolerance for alcohol but it affects their judgment the same as everyone else. They will lose control of the car and they will kill an innocent person just like anywhere else in the world. Moreover, the chances of that happening increases because there are more rum shops per square mile in the Caribbean than churches.
And no, it’s not me saying that the Caribbean tri-island nation of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique has a very, very serious alcohol problem in comparison to the rest of the Caribbean. In fact, we’ve known about this for many years and observed that the fastest growing social group hitting the bottle a bit too hard is young women – those 16, 17 and 18 year olds – drinking “hard licker.” For many years successive Grenadian governments have been “playing ostrich” burying their heads in the proverbial sands and pretending that Grenadians drinking harder and at younger ages than previous generations was not a problem. Now in a damning report, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed Grenada as having the highest alcohol consumption per capita in the Caribbean.
And it could be far, far worse today, in 2018, because this is a 2014 Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health – now 4 years old. The WHO said the island was given a 12.5 per cent rating, followed by St. Lucia at 10.4 per cent. You’d think that is would be a major public health headache for the Keith Mitchell Administration. Right? Wrong! In typical denial mode, Grenada’s Drug Control Officer in the Ministry of Education, Dave Alexander, said while the WHO report is a cause for concern, it does not mean that Grenadians are consuming more alcohol than their regional counterparts.
Say what? Come again? Dimwit, THAT’S PRECISELY AND EXACTLY WHAT THE REPORT SAYS – Grenada has the highest alcohol consumption per capita in the Caribbean – period. In short, based on Grenada’s population the country’s residents ARE DRINKING MORE THAN OTHER REGIONAL COUNTRIES.
Alexander, who heads the Drug Control Secretariat that monitors and reports on drug use particularly among students, says before coming to the conclusion that Grenadians are heavy drinkers “one has to look at various aspects of the report and one just cannot look at the one chart or one piece of data to get the picture.” He added the data was compiled from many sources and the final product is a measurement against the overall population size.
“When they put the data together, what you’d realize when you look at the size of the population per hundred thousand, based on the consumption pattern it would indicate there is a high consumption pattern based on that ratio. It does not mean that Grenada consumes more alcohol than any other country,” he told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC).
But no matter the semantics and official spin, the WHO report is blunt, candid and targeted – its conclusions inescapable and points to the fact that alcohol use and abuse is a creeping social epidemic in Grenada. More alarmingly, the report showed that 66 per cent of the alcohol consumed is spirits or what is called ‘hard liquor’, 30 per cent beer, and four per cent wine. The report also noted that based on the per capita ratio there is more alcohol consumption among women than men.
Witness the verbal gymnastics and semantic contortions that a high-level government official goes into to try and dispute the WHO’s embarrassing findings: “It does not mean that more females are drinking than males but when you look at the per capita, that is the critical thing. One has to look at it from a statistical standpoint and really understand what the variables are to come up with the type of data.” Spare me the spin gryations!
Over the last few years, regional alcohol consumption levels have been a major concern for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the WHO. To this end they have, in 2017, initiated a program for countries of the region to develop national policies to address the issue of sale and consumption of alcohol in the Caribbean. Alexander said Grenada has already drafted its policy and within the next months will be holding public consultations on the issue.
“We will take this draft policy to the public to get their views on what it says…it is envisaged that by the end of this year the policy would be ready for Cabinet approval.” He explained that one of the major recommendations of the draft policy is for amendments to the country’s Liquor License Act to take into consideration the proliferation of alcohol retail outlets and advertising. Interestingly, Grenada’s Liquor License Act was passed in 1901 – 117 years ago. “Back then the situation was different,” Alexander said. “…access was limited and restricted.”
“We need to take measures to reduce access and availability. Also back then they did not have the issue of advertising because there was no media…so the Act back then would not have taken those situations into account,” he added.
The hard facts: Grenada has the 13th-highest alcohol consumption per capita (12.5 liters) in the world. The top 10 countries by alcohol consumption per capita are: Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Andorra, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. With an average consumption of 12.5 liters of pure alcohol per person per year, Grenada tops St Lucia at 10.4 liters, Canada 10.2 liters, Chile 9.6 liters, Argentina 9.3 liters and United States 9.2 liters.