When I read a headline like “Why Alcohol Consumption Among Youth Is On the Rise“, I am excited but then get quickly disappointed by the content that follows. My excitement stems from the fact that ten years ago such headlines were not commonplace in East Africa. However, in my opinion, the content is lackluster as it seeks to glamorize youth who use alcohol.

Big Alcohol and the media: the Western way of dealing with alcohol

Africa is known to be the “emerging market” for Big Alcohol and our young people are a prime target group for multinational alcohol corporations. In 2013, TIME wrote “Africa’s Drinking Problem: Alcoholism on the Rise as Beverage Multinationals Circle” and in 2015 The Wall Street Journal wrote about Diageo in Africa: “Thirsty for Growth, Liquor Giant Taps African Market.”

As Western companies (Diageo, based in London, is the world’s largest liquor company) try to establish European levels of alcohol consumption across Sub-Saharan Africa, alcohol-related problems are increasingly covered by the African media outlets. Unfortunately, like in the All Africa article I cite above, they often seem to address alcohol in a way that falls short of addressing the core issues.

Africa, don’t become like the West

Europe is the heaviest alcohol consuming region in the world. In Europe, young people bear a disproportionate burden of alcohol-related harm and in Europe.

  • Alcohol is the leading risk factor for ill-health and premature death for the core of the European working age population (25 to 59 years of age).
  • Alcohol is responsible for annual productivity losses of €74 billion across the EU and negatively affects the health of 25% of staff in major companies.
  • In the United States, the societal costs of addiction are $249 billion for alcohol harm, according to the Surgeon General.

Alcohol use is so high in Europe and North America that the market is largely saturated. In that context, Africas has become

the new darling of multinational beverage companies looking to drive profits in an increasingly booze-saturated world. The continent has the perfect emerging-market conditions: a relatively small amount of commercial alcohol is being consumed; there is a rising middle class with disposable income; a huge market of young people is about to come of age; and there is an informal moonshine sector, up to 4 times the size of the commercial market, that governments would like to control.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that:

The global spirits industry sees Africa as the final frontier—a potentially huge market that is largely untapped.

Only 2% of the industry’s profits came from Africa and the Middle East in 2013, according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Between 2013 and 2017, the continent’s liquor market is projected to grow by 45%, to $2.39 billion, Diageo has told investors.”

So, before Big Alcohol and the Western way of covering alcohol stories take over Mama Africa, let me set the record straight and address the core of the issue why our youth is consuming more alcohol.

Real reasons

The real reasons why alcohol use among youth in Africa is on the rise are as follows:

  1. Advertising and marketing towards youth
    This is consciously and strategically done by Big Alcohol.
    The types of ads in African TVs, the giant billboards and the mainstream media as well as social media are all targete towards youth.
    The ads glamorize alcohol, show users as successful, virile, fun loving men; they also portray young women as independent, cool and sexy by using alcohol.
    Alcohol ads lie to youth about status and effects. None of the ads, show a diabetes patient, a breast cancer patient, a person maimed by a driver under the influence of alcohol.
    Alcohol producers sponsor almost all entertainment in Africa. This ranges from sports, to arts, and music festivals and so on.
  2. Easy and wide accessibility for anyone including youth
    Alcohol selling shops and bars are ubiquitous in this part of the world. They have become part of the landscape. Alcohol is available in supermarkets, kiosks or tuckshops, bars, pubs, restaurants, and bbq places.
    Alcohol is the most common commodity sold in our countries. Children pass by establishments selling alcohol on their way to school, church, to play and to visit their friends.
  3. The price of alcohol is low and easily affordable
    Alcohol is very cheap. Spirits “viroba” mentioned in the All Africa article costs less than $20 cents for a 40ml packet.
    Prices of beer are also very low and can be afforded by secondary school pupils through use of their pocket money.
    Even Big Alcohol has seen the profitability of cheap alcohol and started their own cheap beer brands to attract the low income groups and youth – as is evident in the aggressive promotion of super-cheap alcohol. The Wall Street Journal reports: “All the real action is when you go below 200 Kenyan shillings,” around $2, says John Williams, marketing director at Kenya Breweries Ltd., a Diageo subsidiary.
    Increase taxation on alcohol would ward off youth from using alcohol.
  4. Alcohol policies are either non-existent or not fully implemented
    This is due to the aggressive lobbying that Big Alcohol engages in – case in point South Africa, Ghana, Uganda where efforts to regulate alcohol more progressively and evidence-based are being stalled; or the example of attempts to water down existing laws such as the Alcoholic Drinks Act in Kenya.

Youth, Africa’s present and future

The alcohol industry has realized that our youth is their future. Do we allow this? Do we allow multinational alcohol corporations to reap gigantic profits on the back of our youth, our communities and our society?

What we need to realize as Africans is that our present and future hinges on our youth!

Without the youth we are doomed. Without their leadership, their efforts to build sustainable communities, their skills and dreams of a better tomorrow, without their understanding and vision for Africa, we will not defeat poverty, climate change and inequality. Without our young Africans sustainable development will not be achievable.

And therefore, I think it is imperative that we protect them from Big Alcohol. Media must play their part. Politicians must honor their responsibility. Community leaders must share in the effort.

Alcohol is a massive obstacle to development. It takes away the time youth have to volunteer, to work, to be productive citizens for our continent. Alcohol takes always the little money the youth make leading to lack of investment and growth. Alcohol causes NCDs – adding to the already humongous burden of disease that Africa has.

Do we want Africa to remain in the back? Of course not, however, if we do not stop Big Alcohol by fully implemented policies that put the health of the continent first, taxation and providing our youth with alcohol free environments where they can play, learn and be innovative without hindrance, we are only rearing poverty, despair and disease.

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