Recently I came across a message from one of the public health WhatsApp groups that I am a part of. The message was a report on sports bodies in Botswana celebrating the return of alcohol sponsorship in sports following the lifting of a sponsorship ban that was in place in the country. Being in lockdown, amidst a global pandemic, and considering the correlation between alcohol use and acquisition of infectious diseases like COVID-19, I found the news from Botswana quite disconcerting.
In terms of alcohol policy, Botswana has been a shining African example over the years. Sadly reports confirming the lifting of the sponsorship ban, however suggest that a reversal of important public health work is underway as policy makers prioritize profit over people’s health.
What I find disturbing is that, the conversation on alcohol companies sponsoring sports deliberately ignores the negative externalities resulting from the promotion of alcohol through sport. The money spent on criminal justice and the burden on health departments are always missing from that conversation. It is not a secret that the negative effects from aggressively promoting increased alcohol consumption far outweigh the so-called monetary benefits. Also missing from the conversation is that a lot of young people watch sport and idolise sports stars thus putting them at risk of early initiation to alcohol.
To get an opinion from the ground, I reached out to Portia Ditheko, the director of Seeds of Awe Recovery (SOAR) in Bostwana who expressed disappointment at the unfortunate turn of events highlighting the negative psychological impact alcohol sports sponsorship has on the impressionable minds of young people.
Advertising of alcohol during sport events is one of the risk factors for early onset of alcohol use amongst youths, young people are more likely to use alcohol as a result of being continually exposed to it,” she told me.
That sports bodies, athletes and sportsmen are celebrating the decision to lift the ban on sponsorship and partnerships between sporting codes and Big Alcohol, recently announced by the government of Botswana, appears to me as typical choreographed alcohol industry propaganda to portray an image of buy in from concerned stakeholders. I say this because, any serious elite athlete will tell you how consuming alcohol compromises athletic abilities. The irony however, is that, most of the alcohol sponsorships have come with advertising and marketing subliminally suggesting that alcohol consumption contributes to athletic success.
The spirited efforts by alcohol companies to sponsor sport betray their real agenda that of recruiting more young Africans as alcohol consumers. The alcohol industry has embarked on scare mongering insinuating that ‘if they are banned then sport will suffer’ coupled with that is a well-planned strategy to appear as the alpha and omega of sports and culture sponsorship. In their nefarious agenda they have recruited malleable puppets in the media and politics to do their bidding. In the absence of alcohol companies there are plenty more ethical corporations that can fill the void left by Big Alcohol.
In 2016, a different government in Botswana made a much more ethical decision: the Botswana National Sport Commission (BNSC) turned down the organisers of the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) Castle Cup from getting Botswana to host the 2017 edition due to protecting the integrity of the ban on alcohol advertising in the country.
At that time, COSAFA Cup was sponsored by Castle, a beer brand then owned by the world’s second largest beer giant SABMiller – even carrying the beer brand in the name. Reportedly, COSAFA was keen to have the Botswana Football Association organise the event. But BNSC chairperson, Solly Reikeletseng emphasized that sport cannot be sponsored through any alcohol brand. He said there is no way they could be seen promoting alcohol through sport.
What message is the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development sending to the youth now by allowing for the local sporting codes to pursue sponsorship from such companies?
Is the cost of harm caused by alcohol to the youth worth the sponsorship in sport?
In this time of a global pandemic, is it sensible to have companies producing a dangerous drug likely to fuel the spread of COVID-19 be allowed to sponsor sport?
While sporting associations have a right to associate with any sponsor they deem fit, should not these rights also come with responsibilities, especially when we considering the fact that the African population is increasingly becoming young?
Should we not be concerned with protecting our youth from the predatory alcohol industry bent on recruiting and initiating them as consumers of their hazardous drug?
The return of alcohol sponsorship to sport is akin to throwing the youth to the wolves. Are the leaders not concerned with protecting the future? Are they willing to sacrifice the future of the youth for immediate financial gratification offered by the alcohol industry?