MaltaToday | 13 August 2008

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EDITORIAL | Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Message in a bottle-ban

If one were to look for a single initiative which encapsulates typical Maltese hypocrisy on a variety of levels, it would have to be the publication this week of the “Beverages in Glass Containers and Consumption of Alcohol in Public Places” bye-laws in the Government Gazette.
Officially, the reason for this measure is to upgrade the tourism product by reducing or eliminating binge drinking on the streets. As Malta Tourism Authority CEO Josef Formosa Gauci put it, the legislation should help ensure that consumers of alcohol drink in the appropriate venues, and not “indiscriminately in the streets.”
But far from banning “indiscriminate” street-drinking, this ban itself appears to be an embodiment of discrimination: singling out only one area for the prohibition of a practice which will continue to be legal everywhere else.
That area is Paceville, a name which has admittedly become almost synonymous with alcohol-induced mayhem at night, especially in the summer months.
But Paceville, noisy and messy as it undeniably can be, is far from the only place where alcohol is consumed in public. Bugibba and Qawra, for instance, have long been associated with summer entertainment, as are Marsalforn and Xlendi in Gozo. In recent years, Marsaskala has also risen to challenge Paceville as an alternative nightlife mecca in the south. And yet, none of these areas have been affected by the ban.
Besides, one can only wonder why legislation of this nature should be restricted to nightlife, and not extended to village festas throughout the islands. After all, the traditional Maltese religious feast has hardly been spared its fair share of binge drinking, with all the associated problems. But it seems that participants in these feasts – some of which can more appropriately be described as “street-parties” – will continue to enjoy consumption of alcohol from glass containers in public places, without the threat of being fined.
Under scrutiny, other anomalies slowly start to emerge. For instance, the ban is limited only to alcohol in glass containers: a slant which appears to be aimed at eliminating the risk of bottles used as weapons in street fights. But again: why just Paceville? Fights occur in other parts of the island, too, and are by no means limited to nightlife spots. Evidently, there must be more behind this legislation than immediately meets the eye.
If this was not clear enough from the abovementioned incongruities, then the industry’s preliminary reactions make the matter inescapable. Among the constituted bodies to have so far welcomed the ban are the Chamber of Small and Medium enterprises (GRTU), and the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association... which between them represent the lion’s share of Paceville’s many nightlife entertainment establishments.
These in turn complain about unfair competition in the form of “bottle shops”: small establishments licensed precisely to sell alcohol in glass containers... much (if not all) of which ends up being consumed on the streets.
Conceding that these will be hardest hit by the ban, Mr Formosa Gauci also pointed out that bottle shops are theoretically only licensed to sell alcohol until 9pm.
“At the end of the day, if they are abiding by the law, they should not be affected, since most of the drinking is done in the evening,” he said. “If they are not abiding by the law, this is simply another means of controlling them.”
But this line of reasoning makes little sense. If bottle-shops are not abiding by the law, then the existing law should be better enforced. Introducing new legislation can only be interpreted as an admission that the present laws are not working. This in turn implies that the new ban itself will likewise not be adequately enforced: joining the breathalyser and smoking ban in the growing list of laws which appear to exist only on paper.
Similarly, MHRA’s George Schembri attributed the steep reduction of Spanish students this year to the alcohol abuse on the streets... but curiously made no reference to the withdrawal this year, by Spanish PM Jose Zapatero, of a grant for Spanish students to learn English
Looking beyond these and other dubious pretexts, the facts of the matter appear a good deal simpler than the unusual logic outlined above.
The GRTU and MHRA have long demanded legislation which would put a stop to their sworn enemies, the bottle shops. It seems they have finally been granted their wish. The new law will indeed, as Mr Formosa Gauci portended, ensure that consumers drink alcohol only in “appropriate places”... “appropriate places” being the new definition of establishments which are members of the two abovementioned associations.
Such an admission paints a curious picture of the way the free market is viewed: the bottle shops are legitimate competitors, which the Paceville establishments and GRTU members still want to eliminate using their influence with law-makers. How such laws will actually curb unruly and outside drinking, is yet to be seen.

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13 August 2008

Message in a bottle-ban

Saviour Balzan
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