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Trouble Brewing: Africa and Alcohol Problems

With over-consumption of alcohol on the rise, governments are struggling to find suitable legislation amidst profit-hungry global corporations and illegally-produced liquor.
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Local hooch makers brewing illegal sugarcane alcohol. Photograph by meaduva.

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 binge drinking in the world, and politicians and commentators have (often rightly) blamed alcohol consumption for any number of evils, from violent crime to general societal breakdown. Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, has publicly held alcohol responsible both for poor work ethic and the spread of HIV/AIDS, and has hiked alcohol prices up by 40% and attempted to shut down the country’s shebeens.

In South Africa, a major public health concern is the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) – a condition caused by mothers drinking during pregnancy, resulting in an incurable birth defect. Tragically, 122 in 1,000 babies are born with this defect in South Africa (compared with just 8 in 1,000 in the US). The South African government early last year began to prepare possible legislation banning the sale of alcohol to pregnant women, but the proposal was criticised as patronising, discriminatory, and impossible to enforce.

Mozambique’s moonshine moratorium

The various controversies and contradictions surrounding alcohol consumption were perfectly captured last month by new alcohol legislation in Mozambique and the subsequent reaction to it. In early December, Armando Guebuza’s government passed a bill aiming to crack down on homemade liquor by raising prices and bringing ‘fake’ wines and spirits into the taxable system. This policy has strengths but also weaknesses, and the opposition RENAMO party quickly condemned the legislation. However, in presenting alternatives to the bill, two RENAMO deputies put forward two separate and quite contradictory proposals.

One advocated outright prohibition of illicit drinks, denouncing them as “the greatest causes of the depravation of [...] Mozambican youths”. The other suggested the government bring the producers under control in order to increase quality and potentially create new brands for export. This conflict between trying to safeguard the moral and physical health of a nation through added restrictions and the desire to exploit the potential for profit is at the heart of Africa’s alcohol dilemma.

Both deputies agreed, however, in their opposition to the government’s upward pricing of drinks. This is also strongly opposed by international drinks corporations (such as Diageo, SABMiller and Heineken) who, perhaps simply concealing their desire for profits, argue that raising taxation on legal alcohol will only drive low-income drinkers underground and onto even less legitimate and more dangerous liquor.

Under the influence of the drinks giants

Indeed, the other big players in this game are the international drinks companies. While it is perhaps unfair to demonise those that are essentially legitimate businessmen operating in a controversial field, these beverage behemoths have nevertheless been raking in the profits off the back of what has been dubbed a public health disaster. Diageo has seen African profits rise 15% in each of the last five years, while the African market now accounts for 14% of their total profits. Meanwhile, SABMiller has plans to sink $2.5 billion investment into Africa in the next five years. The increase in the market for branded alcohol in Africa has been attributed to various demographic shifts, including the growth of the middle-class and an increase in self-dependent women.

The economic incentives for African governments to tap into this expanding market are understandably tantalising. In South Africa – the most mature drinking market in Africa and thus potentially a good indicator for the future in other countries – government revenues from the drinks industry are substantial. South African Breweries (SAB) alone have triumphantly reported contributing R66.2 billion ($7.2 billion) or 3.1% of the country’s GDP, and R10.2 billion ($1.2 billion) or 1.7% of the government’s tax revenue. In this light, making branded drinks accessible to all incomes seems a lucrative idea: boost drinks companies’ profits, rake in the tax revenues, and wipe out the illegal trade in one fell swoop.

But, of course, the costs of widespread alcohol consumption in areas such as public health and labour capacity are harder to estimate. Even without these figures, the perceived drain on the moral fibre of the nation is clearly too much for puritanical presidents such as Khama to tolerate.

And while executives such as Diageo’s President for Africa, Nick Blazquez, pledge to support African governments in “developing the right sort of policy”, some drinks companies’ unethical conduct has met with heavy criticism. A separate WHO report into alcohol advertising across Africa surmised that corporations’ tactics need to be altered. Among their major concerns was the impact of prolific advertising campaigns on Africa’s youth, particularly in new markets where attitudes to alcohol had not yet fully developed. Unethical advertising was also a major concern, with companies suggesting alcohol consumption is a timeless part of African culture, or could lead to a better life and even sporting achievements.

African governments, public health NGOs, and (to an extent) drinks manufacturers have been realising Africa may have a problem with alcohol. More basic legislation and education is needed across the continent to avert the risks of disease, injury and death. But the real headache is the simultaneous popularity of illegally produced local liquor and the big brands of the beverage giants. Can one ever be suppressed without increasing the consumption of the other? Like a groggy party-goer struggling through a hangover to recollect the events of the night before, this is something Africa may have to piece together over time.

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