Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot denies that his government seeks to impose restrictions on the sale of Vegemite, Australia’s popular yeast-based sandwich spread. Allegations of such a ban arose after Australia’s Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion made headlines calling the spread’s use in home-brewing a “precursor to misery” in certain dry counties with large aboriginal populations.
Several scientists have declared brewing alcohol from Vegemite somewhere between difficult and impossible, while one local official has claimed that fermenting orange juice is actually the preferred method in dry counties. Vegemite, for those unfamiliar, is a black, bitter extract and an acquired taste, to put it charitably. It’s hard to imagine Vegemite-based alcohol as an appealing drink, yet that is precisely what the consumer gets under state enforced prohibition.
If true, the Vegemite allegations show how utterly ineffectual government prohibition is. If false, they prove that state officials are not reliable sources of information for what is happening in their own jurisdiction. Concerns over home-brewing safety have led the Queensland government to talk about removing alcohol restrictions in at least some of the dry counties in recent years.
Much of the renewed controversy stems from concerns about sickness (including type 2 diabetes) and death caused by bad batches of homemade alcohol. There is also the social impact: great harm done to families and communities by the harsh laws imprisoning and fining home brewers.
Prohibition also has the unfortunate side effect of discouraging localized consumption of alcohol. American studies have shown residents of dry counties often drive long distances to consume alcohol only to drive back impaired, causing accidents on their way home. Dry counties are also economically disadvantaged by their ruling class’ Puritanism. Money that could have been spent on alcohol purchased within the community is spent elsewhere, making the local area poorer. Additionally, Prohibition encourages violent criminal elements to enter and dominate communities via black market alcohol trade. What would otherwise be the domain of peaceful community members is handed over on a silver platter (very often) to thugs.
Alcoholism is a real problem among Australia’s indigenous population. But using patronizing, authoritarian means to deal with it does little to help. Aboriginal Australians have been subjected to a long history of prejudice and discrimination, one in which their lands, traditional food sources, and family members have been forcibly taken from them. They’ve also been subjected to “unfree labor” and restrictions on their freedom to move about the continent. Imposing further restrictions on them is not the way to correct these wrongs. Instead, we should do seek to undo the underlying injustices that contribute to poverty and alcoholism.
While Vegemite liquor and other forms of homemade alcohol production are not without risks, it is the state that creates the need to resort to such unsafe measures. We should not begrudge attempts to resist unjust prohibitionism. It should be seen as a positive development that the increased ease of home-brewing in recent years has made such laws less enforceable. Hopefully, such developments bring more attention to this issue and lead to the demise of this authoritarianism.