Where alcohol is concerned, we need to look at the long term destruction it causes or else we are doomed…

After reading this article it dawned on me how there’s a misconception about the costs and benefits of alcohol production, distribution, sale and use and the harms and problems that come with it. The last paragraph in this article says:

Furthermore, there is a downstream industry which is heavily reliant on the fortunes of the alcohol industry, both for profits and traffic. This includes retail outlets such as bars, tourism facilities, hotels and restaurants, which employ thousands of workers.

Farmers who supply the barley, sorghum, cassava and sugar used in brewing earn their living from this industry. Distributors, stockists, transporters, printers, advertisers and detergent manufacturers, among others, have the alcohol industry as a major source of business. The multiplier effect of a reduction in volumes is thus felt by the whole economy.”

This paragraph conveniently ignores the phenomenal costs of alcohol harm to the society in general and the economy in particular. In Sub-saharan Africa alcohol is an obstacle to development, not a driver of development. One example you can think of is the huge toll that driving under the influence of alcohol and the related accidents are taking. They are felt by all the people, families and communities, in all these countries in East Africa, for example. These economic costs far outweigh the so-called benefits mentioned in the article.

For instance, the United Kingdom Government’s Alcohol Strategy claims alcohol-related harm is now estimated to cost society (England) £21 billion annually. This figure can be broken down to three items:

  • NHS costs, at about £3.5 billion per year (at 2009–10 costs)
  • Alcohol-related crime, at £11 billion per year (at 2010–11 costs)
  • Lost productivity due to alcohol, at about £7.3 billion per year (at 2009–10 costs, UK estimate).

Note that these numbers do not include any estimates for the economic costs of alcohol harm to families and social networks. The meaning is clear: £21 billion is a conservative figure that in reality is even higher.

In this part of the world (East Africa) we have very young populations. About 50% of the population is youth and one can just forsee how devastating alcohol will be to Africans if we consider health costs and DALYs caused by alcohol. Therefore the costs are much, much higher than the instantaneous gains that our governments may obtain from alcohol producers. I must admit, there has not been such an extensive research in Africa as this one in England.

Other costs related to liver disease, cancer, mental illness have to be added to this bill and these can skyrocket considering that care for cancer is still in its early stages and medical help has to be searched for across boarders or overseas. The effect that alcohol has on brain development cannot be put into monetary terms but it will be seen through the sluggish growth of our societies and economies. Brain development now stops at age 25 and if our young populations use alcohol, this will lead to less intellectual future population which will be detrimental to the advancement of the continent.

How can one even try to compare that cost to the “benefit” of transporting alcohol or farming barley. The two are in different leagues and of course the brain development being way ahead of barley farming. Where alcohol – a toxic, carcinogenic, terratogenic and addictive substance – is concerned, we need to look at the long term destruction it causes or else we are doomed.

For further reading:

IAS Fact sheet: Economic impacts of alcohol

Amphora project: Understanding alcohol’s burden on Europe