Alcohol Consumption High In Tunisia, Despite Prices

In spite of an Islamist government and exorbitant taxes levied on the sale of alcohol, Tunisia’s deeply entrenched drinking culture remains steadfast across much of the country, writes Nadya B’chir.

al-monitor People drink beer in the Palace bar at Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, April 1, 2010. Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

tourism in tunisia, tourism, islamist rise in tunisia, islamist, alcohol

Apr 26, 2013

Alcohol consumption in Tunisia has never been a matter of a trend or a social phenomenon. Rather, there is a cultural tradition of consumption that dates back to the seventh century BC and is not relevant to social, religious or even moral values.

Statistics relating to the sale of beer and other alcoholic beverages, in general, reflect the commitment of the Tunisian people to this cultural tradition. Despite the morose economic situation and the Islamists’ rise to power, this attachment to alcohol remains intact. Moreover, despite the soaring price increases (reaching up to 70%) recorded in 2013, the consumption of alcoholic beverages has not declined in Tunisia.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” In this regard, two American researchers recently revealed that beer triggers the release of a remarkable amount of dopamine — the "happy hormone" — in the brain of its consumer. Hence, it is an established scientific fact: Beer makes us happy. However, this is not due to the sensation of inebriation that it can give, but rather to its taste.  

In Tunisia, the consumption of beer has not stopped evolving for decades among all citizens, from peasants to the elite. After the Ennahda Islamist leaders reached power and with the rise of Salafism in the country, Tunisian citizens grew anxious about losing their ability to drink alcohol. The producers and distributors, namely the Association for the Production of Beverages in Tunisia, grew worried. In fact, sales were expected to go down the drain, thus taking the revenues down with them. A decline in jobs and investment was also foreseen.

What luck, it was just a false alarm!

By taking a look at the activity indicators of the Association for the Production of Beverages in Tunisia during the first quarter of 2013, we can immediately deduce that the quantities of beer that were sold increased by 2.65% in volume compared to the first quarter of 2012.

In terms of revenue, the sales of local beer increased by 7.53%, and went up from 21 million to 23 million Tunisian dinars [from around $13 million to around $14.3 million]. However, it should be noted that the increase in sales is justified by the price adjustment, or in other words, the recent tax increases that were applied in the framework of the 2013 Finance Law.

That being said, Hamadi Bousbiî, CEO of the Association for the Production of Beverages in Tunisia, said at the annual meeting held in June 2012 that the company is no longer able to meet the demand for beer in Tunisia. Forecasts are already counting on an increase of 20% to 25% in production.

At the end of March 2013, a 0.9% production increase was recorded, while investment, mainly consisting of buying material to produce beer, was set at around three million Tunisian dinars [$1.86 million].

In the same context, but this time in the account books of the rival company, Sonobra, the tax increase affected the sale of beer for the first term of 2013, contrary to the preceding year that witnessed high production. Nevertheless, the noted increase at this level created new job opportunities as well as social advantages that 1,000 employees benefitted from across all the company’s activities.

Increases in the price of alcohol — at 50% and 70% — significantly impacted sales in this area. The public, mainly consumers, seriously thinks that these measures are driven by socio-religious motives on the part of the Islamist rulers. What is all the fuss really about? Some people recall the statements of Hamadi Jebali, former head of the government, who insinuated that alcohol consumption should be prohibited in Tunisian society, which had turned "Islamic.” Others say the real reasons for these increases in taxes are merely economic, since the state funds are almost empty and need to be bailed out.

Still, the Tunisian government has hardly considered the adverse effects of such a measure. Many are resorting to black-market alcohol and hard liquor, for instance. Today, a case of 24 Heineken beers costs about 54 dinars [$35.50], while a bottle of vodka costs 60 dinars [$37.25]. The same applies to a bottle of whiskey, the price of which does not exceed the equivalent of 40 dinars [$24.84] at the airport’s duty-free shops.

The sudden drastic increases have given rise to other consequences. People have started to produce their own alcohol. People who are unable to adapt to the new price adjustment are making alcoholic drinks that are better known by the name of “wood alcohol.” These beverages are obtained from the fermentation of the refuse of wood sugar. The Ministry of Health recently published a statement in which it warns against the consumption of this drink, which contains methanol, a substance that can cause kidney failure, blindness, epileptic seizures and even death.

The Ministry of Health’s warnings point out the seriousness of the phenomenon of making homemade liquor and the hazard of the existence of secret workshops specializing in the production and marketing of adulterated liquor. Smoking cannabis, commonly called "zatla," is another common alternative for the alcohol-deprived because it is apparently much cheaper.

The Tunisian government is not, however, content with the skyrocketing alcohol prices alone. Indeed, an article that appeared in the new Code of Investment supported the idea of reducing the propagation of the alcohol-consumption culture.  

This section states that all investments in the field of alcohol and ammunition (we are already surprised by this combination), necessarily require authorization from the High Commission of Markets.

In other words, and concretely speaking, only a small council of ministers may authorize the opening of a liquor tap, be it at a bar or a restaurant or even a hotel bar! Of course, it is not necessary to refer to the heaviness and slowness of a procedure of this caliber, which clips the wings of potential investors in the field. This also penalizes the entire tourism sector.

In parallel with this new obstacle of granting authorizations, the regional authorities are proceeding with closing some outlets, under any pretext available. For example, there is the Carrefour Market of City Ennasr, which stopped selling alcohol overnight because neighbors complained about the nuisance it caused. The point of sale, however, had been open for years. People only became annoyed with the arrival of an Islamist government!

Alcohol has been consumed in Tunisia ever since the seventh century B.C. Even the arrival of Islam failed to reduce this consumption.

Further, in the early years of the 20th century, a French resident openly complained to the colonial French authorities about the Tunisians’ excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in the region of Gafsa.

What this says is that the culture of drinking alcohol under our skies is almost religiously rooted in Tunisian habits.

Of course, conducting awareness campaigns to encourage moderate consumption of alcohol is much better than acting so vainly as to prohibit one of the pleasures that are still available to Tunisians.

Trying, however, to moralize a portion of society by imposing sudden and radical prohibitions will simply lead to its opposite effect.

The government has even increased taxes to (officially) increase its revenues, which also only produced the opposite desired effect. Those who can afford it turn to stronger drinks that they can buy from duty-free shops, while others turned to homemade alcohol, with all the health risks and the resulting costs. In either case, the government put itself in a lose-lose situation.

It failed to obtain additional taxes, it penalized low-income consumers and gave itself a poor public image.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Nadya B’chir