The Fiji Times
Mixed ‘beer’ feeling
ALCOHOL use and abuse are crucial business and public health policy issues because of its associations with trade and the economy, injuries, non-communicable diseases and early deaths.
Its prices have hiked astronomically over the years, especially in the last decade, making it topical when we discuss things like family budgets, domestic violence (or violence in general) and rising poverty.
I went through the trouble of flipping through some of the old brittle pages of The Fiji Times to track beer prices changed over the years, starting from July 1970, two months before we gained our independence.
My observations tell me, advertising in the 1970s were few, as were supermarkets. Beer production had already begun in Fiji at the time.
Records contend that a partnership between Carlton & United Breweries and Carpenters Fiji Ltd established in 1957 our first beer company.
This was incorporated as Carlton Brewery Fiji Ltd (CBFL) later in the year and by November 1958, the company was already brewing Fiji Bitter, with “the first ever keg of the locally-brewed draught beer going on sale in January 1959”.
In the 1970s, advertisements that featured regularly in the papers were mostly dry goods, especially duty free items, with the occasional featuring of food and cigarettes. In 1971, Fiji Bitter stubbies were in circulation.
Next, I flipped through the pages of a July 1980 newspaper. To my surprise, one carton of Fiji Bitter quarts, which we fondly call “long neck”, was selling at Woolworths for $7.40, 62 cents a bottle. I told myself at that price, I’d drink every day of the week.
Ten years later, in 1990, B. Kumar supermarket was selling a crate of stubbies for $18.60, $1.55 a bottle. By the time I started getting hooked on beer in 1998, I was paying $1.50 per stubby at weekends, at my favourite nightclubs.
In July 2000, Fiji Bitter quarts sold at Consumer Supermarket for $23.95 a carton or $1.96 a bottle.
By July 2010, MH was selling a carton of long necks for $36.99 ($3.08 a bottle).This year, just before COVID-19, buying a carton of Fiji Gold (entered the market in 1995) at a nightclub could mean spending up to $120 or over $10 a bottle. Supermarket prices ranged from the late $70s to $80s.
I can say that the prices of different alcohol have gone nowhere but the skies.
So when the national budget 2019-2020 brought down the price of beer by dropping exercise taxes (one carton now in the $50s range), I started asking myself the question – What’s the catch? Why and why now?
The obvious answer is to boost economic activity. In fact, authorities say reducing taxes on alcohol will to allow hotels and restaurants to pass on those savings to ordinary consumers. But is this what’s happening?
Many businesses have closed down anyway, family bread winners have lost jobs and those who are lucky enough to still have theirs are working on reduced hours.
The only ones still with disposal income to take advantage of dropping beer prices would be civil servants and high income earners who have not been affected by salary cuts.
Couldn’t we have had significant drops in certain food items for the poor people of this country? What about our non-drinkers? What do they get out of the reduced price of alcohol?
Like many countries around the world, our increased alcohol prices over the past years have been predominantly to raise taxes.
But authorities have repeatedly said such price-based interventions have been to reduce the level of alcohol consumption, its negative social impacts and the horrifying rise in NCDs in Fiji.
It is true that many major international researches have suggested that increasing alcohol tax or price can result in reduced consumption, fatal traffic accidents, premature deaths, injuries, violence and so the list goes on.
But has raising taxes on alcohol as a crime and public health prevention strategy really worked for us? To find a real answer will need fact-finding. This cannot be done without proper local research.
Any alcohol price increase in the future targeted at reducing our social and health problems as often claimed needs to be evidence-based. Government needs to be transparent as well on its real intention of increasing alcohol prices and refrain from hiding behind the veil of “health reasons”.
On the other hand, how will reducing taxes on alcohol benefit the large majority of struggling Fijian family right now?
I believe government authorities need to more make practical and prudent decisions on consumable items that need a price drop during this time of crisis.
Reducing alcohol prices may look like playing buddy with consumers but it could also mean making beer more accessible and affordable.
To struggling families whose sole bread winners are heavy drinkers, an alcohol price reduction does not necessarily mean saving money for something else. It may also mean having more money to buy more alcohol.
Young drinkers and those with low incomes might be encouraged to drink to access, just like what a group of youths told me during a grog session on Tuesday night: “Have you heard that the price of beer went down. Next week, let’s ditch the grog and put in for beers”.
The feeling that alcohol is now affordable (or less expensive) may make it more appealing than grog, the cheaper alternative many had been consuming more of since alcohol prices became seemingly expensive.
But then again, what is there to say that maintaining high prices can change people’s drinking habits by forcing them to consume less.
Some actually drink out of stress and the COVID-19 financial pressures may push them to drink more to “drown their sorrows”. Some may drink uncontrollably, out of despair over their reduced disposable income.
Some youths I know reduced their spending on and consumption of alcohol over the past few months but got drunk more on homemade brew and other cheaper alternatives that produced the same level of intoxication.
Others have binged on grog, which has enjoyed high prices since TC Winston, but to the detriment of their own health and wellbeing.
The bottom line is, Fiji needs its own evidence. We need to find the impact of different pricing initiatives on alcohol consumption among our unique and different sections of our population.
We need to know this before we can recommend effective reforms that will effectively reduce the health and social costs of alcohol in Fiji.
I also believe the curfew hours and closure of nightclubs have been helpful so far in addressing alcohol consumption and crime in general. But as for price-based interventions, I still don’t know.
Until we meet again on this page next week, stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe.