Legislation aims at making alcohol more expensive in Greenland

By Kevin McGwin, The Arctic Journal - May 26, 2017

When discussing alcohol consumption in Greenland, Denmark often provides a frame of reference. Back in the 1980s, every resident over the age of 14 put away 20 liters of alcohol a year, about twice as much as Danes. Since then, consumption is down by more than half, and is now lower than in Denmark, which has stayed the same.

The fall is due in large part to higher excise taxes, first put into place in 1992. This has led to considerably altered drinking patterns, according to Else Poulsen, a psychologist who heads the government’s drug and alcohol advisory board. But while it is true that many people today drink much less, she says that what the statistic does not show is that for those who abuse alcohol, consumption is going up.

“If you’re a drinker, you are drinking a lot more,” she says.

Much of the reason for this, according to legislation being proposed by the national government, is due to relatively liberal laws governing the sale of alcohol. Changes inspired by World Health Organisation guidelines have been put forward as a way to make it harder for people to get their hands on drink by restricting sales hours, requiring alcohol to be sold from separate retail outlets and setting minimum prices, a measure that would ban things like weekly supermarket specials and happy hours at pubs.

This, the government believes, will have two big effects: it will reduce children’s access to alcohol and it will curb instances of binge drinking (defined as drinking more than five units in single sitting). Preventing people from drinking too much too quickly is on the government’s mind given the number of Greenlanders who admit to doing it regularly. The problem, according to a government survey, is worst on the eastern coast, where 78 percent of residents report bingeing in the past month.

The problem with such behaviour is not alcohol per se, according to Agathe Fontain, the health minister. It is the problems it causes; individual health and social issues, like suicide and poverty, are one set of concerns. More worrisome for Fontain is what happens to children when their parents drink too much. Abuse and other forms of neglect remain stubbornly high, and the government believes making booze harder to get will help improve the situation.

“Alcohol is almost always involved in cases of violence, sexual assault and child neglect,” Fontain wrote in a statement accompanying the proposed legislation.

She is also concerned about a 5.4 percent rise in consumption in 2016, and whether this is a sign today’s young people are beginning to drink more. The new rules are intended to prevent this from happening.

For those already dealing with a drinking problem, the legislation would make it easier to get help by expanding the number of treatment centres to five. Currently, the only place alcoholics can receive professional help is in Nuuk. Municipal workers will also be offered training that can help them identify possible alcohol abuse.

Opponents of the rules do not disagree about the need to help out problem drinkers. Their argument is that the legislation inconveniences responsible drinkers, and may, in fact, exacerbate problems with bingeing, since people would be encouraged to purchase larger quantities of alcohol in shorter periods.

Retailers are also concerned with a number of provisions in the law, including a ban on advertisements that would only apply to domestic media outlets. The popularity of European football broadcasts and foreign news websites, they say, will cancel out the effect of the ban.

Fontain admits that the changes will make life harder for responsible drinkers and those selling alcohol, but, she argues, the protests miss the point.

“It’s only fair that those of us who can control our alcohol consumption make a small sacrifice – and maybe even pay a little more for our beer and wine – in order to help children,” she wrote in a commentary in AG, a weekly newspaper published by this website’s parent company, in response to hefty debate over the proposal.

Poulsen believes the loud opposition to the changes is natural. Yet, if they are implemented, she expects dissatisfaction to quiet quickly once people adjust to them. She finds dissenters also ignore the possibility that restrictions can be reversed if they prove ineffective, or if they achieve their goals.

“These don’t need to be permanent,” she says, “but they need to be done right now.”

The thinking behind the legislation is that if alcohol is harder to get people, and in particular children, will be more willing to go without. Government publications promoting the change say this has been the case in Iceland, where young people, after ranking among Europe’s heaviest drinkers 20 years ago, today have relatively low rates of alcohol consumption.

Such measures, the government points out, were attained in large part through restricting access. Other parts of the Icelandic success, such as helping parents address the issue with their children and ensuring there are activities children can engage in, were a part of Greenland’s annual alcohol awareness week this year.

Other countries provide less-clear cut examples. The Republic of Ireland, which has taken steps similar to those proposed by Nuuk, has seen consumption fall by about a third, to 11 liters per year, since 2000. Bingeing, however, remains a problem, as does alcohol-related harm, according to the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, a research outfit.

In the US, Massachusetts, which became the first state to ban happy-hour pricing in 1984, saw instances of drink-driving-related fatalities fall in the years after, but an increased focus on the offence at the national level may have helped: other states with more liberal alcohol laws also saw their rates of drink-driving decline.

Since then, some states seeking to address alcohol abuse have taken a middle-ground, permitting happy hours, for example, but limiting how often, as well as for how long, they may be held.

Such half steps are not enough for those who believe Greenland has an acute alcohol problem. But, for those who are opposed to the changes, they would be easier to swallow.