In this carefully curated Alcohol Issues Special Feature we shine a light on Africa’s alcohol burden. We provide unique resources to understand how alcohol companies fuel harm and hinder sustainable development in Africa – and what can be done about it.

How alcohol companies fuel harm and hinder sustainable development in Africa and what can be done about it

The African region is home to 16% of the world’s population. Out of this, only 5% are alcohol consumers. Culturally the people in this continent have mostly lived alcohol-free. But now Big Alcohol is manipulating the new cultural revolution in Africa to push more alcohol products on people, and create a demand for alcohol that does not exist, in the relentless push of ever more profits.

Overall, trends in alcohol consumption, alcohol’s contribution to the global burden of disease, and progress towards global targets are all pointing the wrong direction. 

One example is the practices of Big Alcohol during the height of the coronavirus pandemic: In the African region, prior to the pandemic, at-home alcohol use made up barely one-third of alcohol sales. Since the coronavirus outbreak Big Alcohol’s heavy pandemic centric marketing, and their aggressive push for online alcohol sale and delivery have turned more people on the continent into at-home alcohol users. 

In addition to aggressive alcohol marketing practices and the use of new technologies to make alcohol more widely and easily available, lobbying and political interference is a third category of practices Big Alcohol deploys: lobbying initiatives sponsored by alcohol producers and their front groups interfere in a number of sub‐Saharan countries by promoting ‘partnership’ with governments only to hijack the development of national alcohol policies totally in the interest of Big Alcohol.

The health, social, environmental, and economic burden due to alcohol is heavy and growing across African countries.

A recent study found that in rural Uganda intimate partner violence (IPV) is very common and has a dose-response relationship with alcohol consumption and alcohol outlet proximity. There is an urgent need for IPV and alcohol intervention programs in rural communities. Policy to restrict the proximity of alcohol outlets to residential locations should be examined as an intervention for alcohol consumption and IPV perpetration.

Harm due to alcohol is a massive obstacle to sustainable development in the African region. Alcohol hinders the achievement of 14 of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and negatively affects all three dimensions of development, including the environmental one.

For example, the alcohol industry exploits small holder farmers in Africa. Big Alcohol companies increase farmers’ dependence on cash crops, for instance those that can only be used for alcohol production. But that undermines food production and leaves farmers vulnerable to Big Alcohol’s unethical practices.
In a brand new opinion article, Brenda shines a light on Big Alcohol practices that harm food security and entire livelihoods.

Pink, glitter, “mummy juice” or “wine o’clock” time… alcohol selling strategies that can be patronizing and damaging have proliferated in recent years.
In a recent guest expert column, Caroline Kahiu examines how the alcohol industry is trying to convert African women to alcohol consumption – and which consequences that is having now and in the future.

The alcohol industry‘s strategy of using young women to promote beer in Benin City, Nigeria ‘sexualizes’ beer marketing. It exposes beer promoters to health and social risks because they may be coerced into unwanted relationships as a condition for some men to purchase their brands (or sell more and meet their targets). 

Another example of alcohol’s secondhand harm is the epidemic of road traffic fatalities on the African continent. A report by the World Bank on alcohol fueled road traffic crashes in Malawi showed that an alcohol prevalence of 30.7% among males and 2.5% among females who were in road traffic accidents. However, 19.2% of the accidents affected women indicating a disproportionate burden on women. 

Solutions are available!

Alcohol policy solutions can protect the people of Africa from alcohol harm. Especially alcohol taxation has significant potential to prevent and reduce alcohol harm, promote health and development, and generate government revenue.

In many countries, current alcohol tax rates are far below what is feasible in terms of revenue potential, according to a World Bank study.

The WHO Global Alcohol Strategy recommends that Member States establish a system for specific domestic taxation that takes into account the alcohol content of the beverage, accompanied by an effective enforcement system. It also encourages countries to review prices regularly in relation to inflation and income levels; ban or restrict sales below cost and other price promotions; and establish minimum prices for alcohol where applicable.

Alcohol taxation is the single most cost-effective alcohol policy solution. It helps reduce overall alcohol use and related harm, as well as heavy and high-risk alcohol use. For instance, young people and adult alcohol users engaging in heavy episodic alcohol use are exposed to serious health and social risks, as reflected in statistics on highway safety, injuries, violent crime, or domestic violence, according to the World Bank

Secondly, there is good evidence that alcohol use and related harm occurs in a social context, and that alcohol users across the spectrum of different amounts and patterns of alcohol intake influence one another. 

This means that reducing alcohol affordability, through ensuring price increases by raising taxes, is effective in reducing the overall level of alcohol consumed in a society, including the consumption of the heaviest alcohol users. Alcohol taxation is proven to reduce heavy and high-risk alcohol use. That’s why it is so effective in preventing and reducing alcohol harm. 

The accumulated research findings indicate that population-based policy options – such as the use of alcohol excise taxation to reduce alcohol affordability, reducing alcohol availability and implementing bans on alcohol advertising – are the “best buys”.

Triple win potential of alcohol taxes

Public health-oriented taxes on tobacco and alcohol are non-distortionary taxes. They have a triple benefit:

  1. Raise fiscal revenue,
  2. Reduce and prevent harm due to tobacco and alcohol, and
  3. Promote health and development by easing the health system burden and facilitating investments into healthcare and health promotion.

Besides revenue raising objectives, the rationale for excise taxes on alcohol is to reflect their harmful external costs. The benefits of higher alcohol taxes are obvious for individuals and entire communities. The benefits result from:

  • Reduced alcohol use,
  • Preventing the initiation of alcohol use among children and youth, as well as
  • Reducing the negative health, social, and economic consequences caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry.

Nevertheless, in many countries, including in Lesotho, current alcohol tax rates are evidently far below what is feasible in terms of revenue potential and what is needed to achieve development targets, according to the World Bank.

brand-new study published in The Lancet is providing ground-breaking analysis: the most effective alcohol policy solutions have declined between 2015 and 2020, while it improved for tobacco policies. In fact, the alcohol policy best buys are “systematically neglected at the global level.”

  • Most policies targeting alcohol harm have not been fully implemented in 2020. Often, they are not even partially implemented. 
  • Alcohol advertising is among the best buy measures that are the least widely implemented. 
  • And in many regions alcohol is becoming more affordable, due to a failure to implement public health-oriented alcohol excise taxes.

Employing evidence-based alcohol taxation reaps significant benefits across 10 of 17 SDGs. There is strong evidence that raising alcohol taxes is an effective strategy for reducing alcohol consumption and related harms.