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Brazil's New Closing Time

One city's decision to shut down bars before midnight has served as a model for cutting crime and alcoholism in a nation plagued by both


Posted June 01, 2006

Their caipirinhas are as potent as their soccer stars, and their beer is so beloved that they hold annual competitions to decide which is the coldest, frothiest and tastiest. But while partying is second nature to Brazilians, the mornings after can be rougher than most. Some 17% of all men suffer from alcohol-related problems or dependence, and more than one in ten of all deaths in Brazil are alcohol-related which is two and a half times the world average, according to the Brazilian Psychiatric Association.

In recent years, however, a suburb of Sao Paulo came up with a new approach to help curb the nation's nasty collective hangover. In Diadema, a gritty, industrial city of almost 400,000 people, Mayor Jose de Filippi Junior passed a law in 2002 that forced almost all of the city's 4,800 bars and restaurants to stop selling alcohol between the hours of 11 pm and 6 am. The effect has been stunning. Since the law kicked in, "the number of murders fell by 47.4%," said Regina Miki, the city's social-services chief. "The number of road accidents fell by 30%. The number of assaults against women fell by 55%. And the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions fell by 80%. And it's all because of this law."

Such phenomenal statistics are leading towns and cities all over Brazil to embrace partial prohibition as a cheap and effective solution to the inner-city violence that has made it one of the bloodiest societies in the world. At least 120 municipalities have followed Diadema's lead, and the federal government encourages such prevention efforts by offering additional funding for law enforcement to towns that restrict drinking. Even international experts have taken notice.

Filippi believes the strategy has saved more than two hundred lives, but its benefits are also economic. Many of the companies who shied away from investing in a city rated the most violent in the state of Sao Paulo in 2000 now feel they can do business there safely. For 20 consecutive months, Diadema led the state Brazil's industrial heartland in the number of jobs created, and it is gaining a reputation as a model of abstinence and urban renewal.

With the country's health system in ruins and alcohol producers barely regulated, the initiatives are wise, said Dr. Ronaldo Laranjeira, the Sao Paulo doctor who led the U.S.-Brazilian team studying the ban's effects. "It is cheap," Laranjeira said, "and shows that alcohol-related violence can be tackled."

Diadema's restriction on drinking hours is enforced by special groups of police and inspectors who patrol the city's streets each night after the 11 pm cut-off. When officers find a bar flouting the law, the owners receive an initial warning. Then, if the bar gets caught again, the owners are fined about $60 and double that amount if they get nailed a third time. One more transgression, and the bar gets closed down. Exemptions are hard-won, and so far have been granted to just 30 establishments that have been soundproofed, hired their own security guards and are located far from residential areas.

When the legislation was passed by the City Council in 2002, few people believed it would work. Since Brazilian laws are often not worth the paper they are written on, Diadema tried to safeguard its enforcers from getting corrupted. For starters, when the four patrol cars go out on each night, only the team leader knows what route they will take. The police and inspectors also ride together, making it hard to bribe one without the knowledge or cooperation of the others. When they come across a bar selling alcohol after hours, they are careful to approach with a minimum of force, a key consideration given all the bombings, shootings and bus burnings this month in the region that killed 186 people.

It may sound like a lot of work to enforce, but Diadema's transformation has been well worth it. "The decline in the murder rate was substantial, the most substantial weve seen globally over such a time period," said Bob Reynolds, director of the Pacific Institute's Alcohol Policy Initiatives in West Virginia and a consultant on the Diadema project. "They made a relatively modest intervention...and they got these dramatic improvements. I was able to tell them, 'This is as good as it gets.'"