THE new chairman of the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches (JUGC) Reverend Rennard White has chided the marketers of alcoholic beverages for what he describes as the "glamorisation of alcohol" which, he feels, if left unchecked, could turn more youngsters into alcoholics.
The pastor said that while he understands the need for these companies to secure their bottom line, the accessibility of alcohol, to youth especially, will come at a high price which society will have to pay eventually.
"A worrying trend that I see, and I really would like for us to address, is the seeming all-out assault on society by those who are the purveyors of alcohol; the continuous invitation that is being put in the faces of our young people to come drink," he told the Jamaica Observer.
The JUGC is estimated to speak for about 99 per cent of the local Christian population by virtue of its representation of the island's seven umbrella church groups. White officially took over as head of the organisation from convenor Reverend Glen Anglin earlier this month, following Anglin's retirement. White is also the president of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals (JAE) and pastor of Tower Hill Missionary Church in Kingston.
He said that the high consumption of alcohol by youth is a matter of serious concern for pastors and youth leaders.
Rev White's concern is reminiscent of the prohibition era in the United States when church leaders lashed out against what they termed 'demon' or 'devil rum'.
"All this drinking and free party, and 'drink all you can', to show young people are having a great time drinking somebody's alcohol; it is going to have its effect down the road. But guess what, sometimes when you say these things, people think 'you are just church people, so be quiet'," White said.
The reverend said that although these companies might not intentionally set out to make drunkards of youth who are accessing their products, their marketing strategy makes it hard for these individuals to drink responsibly.
"They have made the young population the centre of all the ads and show what a great time they are having. Everybody is with a glass or a bottle in their hand and the idea is ultimately to market their drinks," argued White.
"I don't know how concerned they are about what is going to happen when people keep on ingesting this over a period of time, and then we don't know what percentage of them are going to become alcoholics," he said.
While persons under 18 are, under the law, prohibited from buying alcohol, White said this has not stopped teenagers from accessing alcoholic beverages. In fact, he believes overindulgence of alcohol is not right at any age.
"Whether you are 18 or 30, cocaine is going to be cocaine. We are talking about the deleterious effects of the thing, the possibilities of it becoming addictive," he said.
In making his case, White pointed to the "glamorisation" of other harmful products in the past, including cigarettes, noting the difficulty health officials are experiencing trying to get people not to smoke, many of whom picked up the addictive habit because of early marketing campaigns projecting smoking as a glamorous thing.
He said simply telling young people to "drink responsibly won't necessarily stop people from drinking alcohol, just as the warning on cigarette boxes today is not stopping people (from smoking)".
"It's really a tough situation because people are going to say, look how many people make their living out of this, but it's a serious thing when you have to marginalise and kill some for others to live," reasoned the pastor.
The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) was forced to launch a public education campaign last summer against teen drinking, after the agency found that teens as young as 13 years old were becoming severely intoxicated at parties despite the legal age limit for the purchase and consumption of alcohol.
NCDA field officer for Kingston and St Andrew Daniel Brown, in a Sunday Observer story last year June, pointed out that the agency was concerned about the number of young people who were falling down drunk at parties. "You were stepping over youngsters who were drunk, passed out on the streetside," he said, after attending one popular summer all-inclusive party.
Brown pointed out that Ecstasy and other drugs were also being sold at some of these parties and once inside, teens were allowed to purchase alcohol and cigarettes without anyone asking their age.
Of the 144 small, medium and large billboards along the main corridors across Jamaica surveyed by the NCDA for messages and images in 2008, brands of beer (46 per cent) were most highly advertised, followed by rum (21 per cent) and wine (four per cent).
The agency noted on its website that the actors were young adults and the language used "connoted real living, adult entertainment and stamina". The boards were also found in close proximity to homes, playfields and schools.
Reverend White said the Missionary Church in Jamaica has started an education campaign to sensitise young people about the negative effects of alcohol. The JAE, he said, has also dubbed 2013 the year of the youth and in that context will be focusing on the effects of the alcohol culture on Jamaican youngsters.
"People might say it's a free society, so you can't stop people from marketing their products, but by the same token, I say we need to raise the red flag. We need to touch base with families and point out the possibilities of what alcohol can do to people who are studying and what it can do to drivers on the road," he said.