Alcohol consumption and its consequent effects on health

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Alcohol consumption and its consequent effects on health are on the rise in Africa. Reports published by the World Health Organization (WHO) have recorded some concerning trends. Despite average alcohol consumption per capita being only half of Europe’s (largely thanks to Africa’s many teetotal Muslims and Christians), the latest WHO report found the region to have the highest rate of binge drinking in the world at 25%. "It's true that most people in Africa don’t drink for cultural, religious and economic reasons”, says Vladimir Poznyak, Coordinator of the Management of Substance Abuse unit at WHO, “but those who drink, drink a lot”.

In many countries this would instinctively trigger the implementation of higher taxes on alcohol and better public education into the risks. But corporate interference is strong in much of Africa – a relatively new market where many companies are hungry to capitalise on profitable expansion. And complicating the issue further is the prevalence of illegally produced local alcohol. These drinks are usually extremely potent, often dangerous, and occasionally lethal – many worry that increased taxation will simply drive more people to resort to these illicit concoctions.

Draughting the right legislation

Over the last couple of years, legislation around alcohol has picked up pace in Africa. Last summer, South Africa proposed new laws to raise the minimum drinking age from 18 to 21, properly license shebeens (informal taverns), restrict alcohol advertising, and get tougher on drink-driving. Earlier in 2012, Zambia banned the sale of alcohol in cheap plastic sachets. Meanwhile, back in 2010, a strict regulation known as the “Mututho law” was introduced in Kenya, prohibiting the sale of alcohol by grocery stores before 5pm. The act has been credited with a drop in alcohol-related deaths in Kenya by 90%, and moves to amend the act and extend licensing hours to benefit retailers were defeated last November.

However, much has yet to be legislated across the continent. While most countries have set a minimum drinking age, enforcement is another matter altogether. Similarly, drink-driving laws may have been firmly in place in South Africa since 1998, but in Nigeria, for example, the failure to specify a quantifiable illegal amount of alcohol in the blood has rendered enforcement efforts futile.

Perhaps the greatest problem for legislators, however, is trying to tackle the problems of illicit alcohol production and the increased consumption of legal alcohols simultaneously.

What’s your poison?

The illegal booze is the most conspicuous evil and the dangers of Africa’s makeshift beverages should not be underestimated. The names alone invoke their deadly potency: Nigerian palm-wine ‘Crazy Man in the Bottle’; Botswana’s ‘Tho-tho-tho’ (the dizzy spell); Zimbabwean ‘Scud’; and ‘Kasiki’ (I Regret) from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Kenya, it is possible to obtain ‘Jet-5’, a liquor that derives its name from the stolen jet fuel that gives it its kick.

Over the last decade or so, deadly batches of homemade hooch have caused multiple deaths across Africa. Spates of methanol poisoning occurred in Kenya in 1998 and 2000, for example, while 80 died in Uganda in 2010 from similarly tainted banana gin.

One proposed solution has been to make regulated alcohol brands more affordable for the average low-income Africans, thus drawing them away from the need to consume cheap illegally-made alcohol. This policy has predictably been backed by drinks companies (who see mega profits to be made), though other less financially motivated commentators have also supported the idea.

The danger with lowering prices, however, is that it might encourage greater general consumption of alcohol. Indeed, another alcohol problem facing Africa is that the sheer volume of branded alcohol being consumed is increasingly causing health problems. As mentioned above, Africa is thought to have the highest rate of...
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