Alcohol consumption is being regarded as an activity that poses risks to health. Intoxication as the direct, observable result of drinking is perceived as undesirable and the source of many ills in society. Legislators at the House of Representatives currently debate a bill that seeks to eliminate the production, distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages in most parts of Indonesia.
While the intentions might be laudable, a prohibition actually has adverse effects on public health. Our research in six Indonesian cities confirmed that, instead of curbing the desire for intoxication, prohibition facilitates the growth of black markets, a case especially evident in areas with partial prohibition that limits the distribution of alcohol to particular zones. In our survey, in both total and partial prohibition areas, consumers perceived an increase of undocumented alcohol stores by more than 75% since the year 2010, when legal liquor was still widely available at affordable prices.
The lack of access to documented alcoholic beverages reinforces a general preference of Indonesian consumers for stronger spirits and pushes them to even consume extremely dangerous concoctions, so-called oplosan. Oplosan is widely available and regarded by consumers as a fast and potent way to get intoxicated. Sellers appreciate that it is distributed in smaller portions than beer or wine and easier to hide from law enforcement agencies. The Indonesian case proves the “Iron Law of Prohibition” that a prohibition inadvertently leads to heavy and harmful drinking.
The Indonesian government tried to curb the consumption of alcohol by imposing high excise taxes, while local governments created prohibition zones around mosques, hospitals, schools, public squares etc. Both policies have had undesirable results. Imposing high taxes in 2010 made recorded alcohol so expensive that consumers turned to unrecorded alcohol. The reported death toll from bootleg liquor increased from 149 deaths in 2008-2012 to 487 deaths in 2013-2016. Meanwhile, local zoning policies are often so expansive that they rule out all possible sales locations and have all the adverse effects of a general prohibition.
This study recommends, instead, that taxes and tariffs should be lowered so that documented and safer alcoholic beverages become affordable and consumers can avoid purchasing dangerous bootleg alcohol. In order to prevent under-age drinking, it should be compulsory for purchasers of alcoholic beverages to prove their age. There should also be strict licensing requirements for authorised sellers of alcoholic beverages. Finally, public education programmes need to create an awareness and understanding of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.