June 29, 2007

How Greenland curbed alcohol abuse

Allowing beer, wine sales key to moderating drinking

JOHN THOMPSON

Alcohol abuse causes tremendous damage in Greenland, just as it does in Nunavut and Nunavik.

But the solution chosen by Greenland's government for its most remote communities is not prohibition, which it acknowledges does not work, and only encourages bootlegging and the binge drinking of hard liquor. It's to ban hard liquor, but allow the sale of beer and wine.

Qaanaaq, a community of 800 near Thule on Green­land's west coast, is following this path after the government recently agreed to lift a two-month ban on alcohol.

The ban was prompted by a sociologist's report that described a community where alcohol abuse was so rampant children were often afraid to return home because their parents were drunk day and night.

Of course, making alcohol available is seen as just part of the solution.

The return of beer and wine to Qaanaaq depends on the community developing a plan to address widespread child neglect. Greenland's government has agreed to pour more money into Qaanaaq for social programs, such as alcohol treatment groups, education campaigns in schools, and classes to strengthen parenting skills.

Bodil Poulsen, an alcohol abuse worker with Greenland’s department of health, says a ban on hard alcohol, but free sale of wine and beer, may be the solution to curbing binge drinking in Greenland’s most remote communities.
(PHOTO BY JOHN THOMPSON)

Other Greenland communities have had success with the same approach.

Ittoqqortoormiit, a community of 500 on Greenland's remote eastern coast, was wracked with high rates of murder and suicide in the 1980s. As in Qaanaaq, the Greenland government stepped in and banned alcohol in 2000. Residents were furious.

Later, after community consultations, it was agreed to ban hard liquor and allow beer and wine. At first, crime spiked.

But then it declined, and, with the help of an extensive rehab program, parenting courses, and the arrival of a community radio station staffed by local youth, life in Ittoqqortoormiit improved significantly, a government report published several years later found.

Across Greenland, alcohol consumption has dropped dramatically since booze bans were lifted in many communities in 1982. At that time, residents consumed, on average, 22 litres of alcohol each year. That has since dropped to 13 litres.

That's still a lot compared to Canada, where the average resident drinks only eight litres of alcohol a year. But it's a huge improvement for Greenland, says Bodil Poulsen, an alcohol abuse worker with Greenland's health department.

"I believe you need to make alcohol available," she said.

Prior to the liberalization of alcohol sales, Greenland attempted to curtail drinking through different restrictions, including ration cards. In the end, Poulsen said, people came to the conclusion that residents need to learn how to handle alcohol, and residents voted to open sales up.

"It's hard work. But we have to learn," Poulsen said.

Poulsen said liberal alcohol sales also help prepare Greenland's youth for when they visit Denmark, a heavy-drinking nation, so the shock isn't as abrupt as it is for Inuit from Nunavut and Nunavik when they first visit Ottawa or Montreal and discover alcohol, once heavily restricted, is freely available.

"They're living in a globalized world. They need to learn to cope," Poulsen said.

Some suggest restricting alcohol in Canada's north may make it all the more attractive to drink.

Victoria Simigaq, who grew up in Kangirsuk but lives in Greenland's capital of Nuuk, says alcohol always seems more tempting when she's back home, where it's restricted, rather than in Nuuk, where alcohol is sold at every corner store and supermarket.

"It's like reverse psychology," she said.

Likewise, many residents of Qaanaaq are still upset they weren't consulted by the government before the ban on alcohol was imposed.

Shortly after the ban, demonstrations were held in the streets. And during a referendum held June 11 in Qaanaaq, the majority of residents voted in favour of a return to open sales of all alcohol, while only a minority supported the limited sales of only beer and wine.

But Poulsen sees the vote results as a reaction to a government telling them how to live, without offering them a say.

"They're angry," Poulsen said. "‘Why didn't you ask us?'"