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Deaths from Black-Market Booze Are Up Since Indonesia's 'Beer Ban'

In 2015, Indonesia instituted a nationwide ban on the sale of beer at minimarts in order to "prevent the corruption of the youth."

by Renaldo Gabriel
15 February 2017, 9:17pm

Illustration by Daniella Syakhirina

This post originally appeared on VICE Indonesia

Indonesia instituted a nationwide ban on the sale of beer at minimarts in 2015, ending a culture of late-night convenience store drinking seemingly overnight in a move that critics called a poorly thought out olive branch to conservative Islamic political parties.

Now, more than two years later, reports are showing that the ban has done more harm than good. By making beer harder to get, some Indonesian drinkers have shifted their consumption to dangerous and unregulated alcohol available on the black market, according to a report by the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS).

The report found that the prevalence of black market alcohol stores had increased by 75 percent since 2010—back when beer was available for purchase at most minimarts. More than 58 percent of Indonesians who purchased unregulated, and often deadly, miras oplosan on the black market said they chose the drink because it was cheap and easy to find.

"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," the report found.

Black market alcohol is a deadly brew in Indonesia. In February of last year, 26 people, mostly students, died in a spate of alcohol related deaths in Central Java. All had consumed illegal black market alcohol. Nationwide, 487 people died from illegal alcohol poisoning between 2013 and 2016—a 226 percent increase over figures from 2008 to 2012.

"There will always be a substantial demand for alcoholic beverages, and when you cut something that's legal and could be regulated, they're going to make their own booze, even though some people don't care at all about beer," said Ade Putri, the co-founder of Beergembira, a beer enthusiast and education group. "They'll want to make spiked drinks because it's cheap and it's an easier method for some."

Now, as the nation mulls a wider ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages, some are questioning why this pluralistic nation has become so obsessed with outlawing alcohol.

The beer ban, as it became known, was instituted in early 2015 by then trade minister Rachmat Gobel. Rachmat ratified a law banning the sale of beer and other "Class A alcoholic beverages" from small retailers. The reasoning, he said, was to prevent the corruption of the youth, arguing that it was too easy for underage students to get their hands on beer.

"That day, we found out from officials of the Ministry of Trade that the reasoning behind it was trivial, it was because they received SMS messages saying that people who drink [in mini markets] were disturbing the peace," said Ade Putri. "They never went to the places the people who complained came from, it was only based on text messages and emails that came in, [and they still] chose to cut the whole supply."

The regulation was an expansion of a 2013 presidential decree that allowed the sale of alcohol in convenience stores, but also let local governments pass stricter regulations that could limit its sale. Rachmat's regulations at the Ministry of Trade narrowed the law, allowing for a nationwide ban.

But cities designated as "tourism zones" were still allowed to sell beer in mini markets if they pleased. So today, thirsty consumers can find bottles of Bintang in Indomaret in Bali, but not in Jakarta. Now, with three different levels of the government each having its own regulation on the sale of alcohol in convenience stores, there is no simple answer as to whether it's legal to sell beer at a 7-11.

"From a policy perspective it was very unusual and unwarranted," said Rofi Uddarojat, researcher from the CIPS. "Because it [the Class A alcohol ban] wasn't evidence-based and it didn't go through a process of proper policy planning. In 2014 they already had a new regulation that made licensing even more strict."

These contradictions are behind erroneous reports that the beer ban was coming to an end in Jakarta. The ban is, by most accounts, still in effect regardless of any changes to the Ministry of Trade's regulations.

"Indonesian Law has many contradictions, doesn't it?" Rofi remarked.