A little bit more than four years ago I got to learn about the pervasiveness of alcohol harm in Africa, and I understood the impediment to development it is. Before then, I had only viewed alcohol as a social beverage, a “drink” that made parties more fun and that was a catalyst for having a good time. I had bought into the myths promoted by Big Alcohol.
Myths about the “magic” drink
It is quite astounding to me now to still find people who believe those alcohol industry glamorizations, messages and myths, such as the idea that alcohol makes them better people; that alcohol allows them to enjoy parties; that alcohol facilitates having a great time in their friends’ company; that alcohol gives them courage to approach an intended partner; that alcohol magically endows them with awesome dance moves; that alcohol is a social beverage.
The alcohol industry profits from these misconceptions and from an alcohol norm that forces alcohol into every social and cultural event in African societies – where still the majority of people live free from alcohol. When Africans view alcohol as a social and cultural drink, a beverage to be had during social gatherings, after work meetings, weekends, family outings, during family rites of passage – be it a birth, death, circumcision, engagement, wedding, divorce and so on the alcohol industry earns gigantic sums of money.
Changing the norm, remembering the past
I often try to make my fellow Africans understand that cultural alcohol usage was way way less than how people use alcohol these days. Mainly because the process of brewing alcohol took at least for days and at most ten days. It was also used by men and women of a certain age – the grandparents. Those that had become less productive to our societies and were approached by younger generations for their wisdom.
Mind you: They did not consume it the way it is promoted today. They did not engage in alcohol consumption the way that Big Alcohol advertises it across Africa these days – crates of beer, bottles of liquor or wine at a time and every day!! No way.
People still argue that poverty leads people to take up alcohol use – an ill-advised coping mechanism to endure hardship and loss that we Africans are only too familiar with. But it is also true that alcohol leads people into poverty. Alcohol fuels a vicious circle that often locks up entire families and communities in poverty, deprivation and ill-health.
Towards an evidence-based view of alcohol
A change of attitudes is direly needed. People are aware of the harms caused by alcohol yet they continue to use it; and they continue to be fooled by the alcohol industry. People are dying of alcohol related illnesses and yet people continue to use alcohol at the funerals. African economies are drained, undermined and burdened by alcohol harm and yet politicians routinely claim the alcohol trade is “good for the economy”. Non-Communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise across Africa, fueled by risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol use and yet people have not changed their concept of alcohol as social beverage. It’s a product of deprivation and exploitation – if you ask me. Alcohol is a major risk factor for violence against women across Sub-Saharan Africa and yet people use it to make life more “glamorous”. A change of attitudes, awareness and norms is urgently needed.
Alcohol is a public health problem of massive proportions. And it is even bigger than that. Consider its negative impact on democracy.
Recently, I had to ponder on alcohol and democracy. 2015, 2016 and 2017 are election years for the whole of the East African region. The election period is where African citizens are supposed to be active citizens and exercise their right to engage in public debate and vote for the “best” candidate. However, politicians within the region use this as a time to garner votes from youths (who make up more than 50% of the voting registers) by giving them free alcohol. What are the effects of such moves by East African politicians?
- Firstly alcohol diminishes good judgment by the youth therefore they start believing the lies they are fed and instead start thinking that the said politician actually sympathizes with their issues such as unemployment, poverty etc. When in fact they are being used as pawns – just means to an end.
- Secondly, I believe it gives the youth false hope that their situation will change after the voting is done. But what we learned from the past is that elections alone don’t bring about change, but a continuous, persistent civic engagement of the people, especially the young generation. Just as the effects of alcohol fade into a hangover, so do the promises made by politicians once they are in office – if we do not hold them accountable.
- Thirdly, this type of alcohol induced voting infringes on the rights of youth to vote freely and to engage in the democratic process deliberately. Their votes are bought. Paid for by alcohol that only gives them more problems in the future where health, socio-economic status and productivity are concerned. Their time is wasted by going to rally after rally for the free alcohol instead of the political issues, when instead they could have been studying, or in the fields cultivating the land or planting or trying to find ways to make a living for themselves.
- The fourth problem that alcohol causes is that those youth that actually cared for their communities do nothing in the end because they are under the influence of alcohol. Violence is another issue that results from politicians campaigning with free alcohol because mob psychology and hatred are spread quickly when alcohol is involved. This can be violence against the political opposition, against intimate partners, children and whoever comes in the way.
In this way alcohol is still used to keep the masses apathetic or even turn them against each other, instead of fostering a culture of active and constructive participation. We can see that alcohol harm, for example in the form of violence, infringes on the rights of others as well.
In Africa, alcohol is a massive obstacle to sustainable development. And it is an obstacle to the enjoyment and realisation of Human Rights and democracy. There are no alcohol industry myths that can cover up these truths. And we Africans must eventually rise to face them and address them.
For further reading:
Evidence about alcohol obstacle to development, here.
Evidence about alcohol and violence against women, here.
Evidence about alcohol and poverty, here.