By Dr CLEMENT SAKALA-
Parents and members of society alike are calling on the Government to take urgent measures to address the increasingly alarming and widespread use of high potent alcoholic beverages such as Kachasu,which are sold to the general public without regulation.
The widespread selling of such beverages is exposing young people to the risk of acute mental health,medical complications and other social disorders.
The major complaint is that while the country has a robust Liquor Licensing Act number 20 of 2011,which regulates the production, distribution sale and consumption of alcohol, this Act
is not being effectively enforced or observed.
Currently, the Act is more focused on charging licensing fees rather than the distribution and selling of liquor, and conversely contributing to higher levels of consumption, especially among the vulnerable sub-population, who are the youths, as they can buy the cheap alcoholic beverages from unregulated places.
As a result of the easy access to alcohol, this is being blamed as one of the major contributing factors luring the youth to heavy drinking and alcohol abuse.
As a consequence, many young people are ending up taking to anti-social behaviour and tendencies such as truancy, violence and generally rogue behaviour, while many others are resorting to both petty and serious criminal acts to feed the addiction.
Many others are being sucked unwittingly into alcoholism at a young age because of the damage that these high potent alcoholic beverages are causing to their body systems.
While the liquor Licensing Act is supposed to be used as instrument to regulate the sale of alcoholic beverages, it is a common occurrence across the country that high potent alcoholic beverages, such as Kachasu, are sold without restriction from unlicensed and unregulated
places like makeshift kiosks, markets, bus stops and by the roadside.
Even though council police officers have occasionally swamped on vendors to confiscate the contraband in towns and unregulated outlets, the task is too vast to effectively curtail the selling of the beverages commensurate with the number of officers and the frequency of conducting such raids.
As a consequence, the widespread availability of the beverages has found a fertile marketing ground among the youth and young adults who are often hard strapped for cash and conversely fueling high consumption patterns.
Recently, one young man indicated that, “You can buy Kachasu, which is packaged like water, from street vendors in Lusakaas you ride in a minibus.”
The young man talked of illicit alcoholic beverages branded in different names and guised as mineral water.
While alcohol is a socially acceptable substance from generations far, its negative consequences when taken recklessly cannot be overemphasized.
This is because the reckless use of alcohol has played a significant role leading to high mortality rates from incidences such as road traffic accidents, unintentional injuries from fights, and suicide.
Individualaffected by these harms may be a spouse or partner, a child, relative, friend, neighbour, co-worker, person living in the same household, or a stranger, as is particularly common in the case of traffic crashes.
Alcohol abuse has also been significantly cited in incidences of Gender Based Violence (GBV), marital challenges and including break ups.
It is against this backdrop that many parents and society at large breathed a sigh of relief and applauded President HakaindeHichilemawhen, in his inaugural speech, he said,“No effort should be spared in salvaging the children on the streets or those engaged in vices such as alcohol and substance abuse.”
Admittedly, it is rather too early to judge the President on his words as he is still settling into the enormous responsibilities of the presidency of a country.
We definitely ought to give the President sufficient time for a well considered and thought out response to addressing the challenge.
One of the key starting points for the President and indeed the Government to address the alcohol situation in the country would be to revive the implementation of the National Alcohol Policy (NAP).
Fortunately, Zambia already has a National Alcohol Policy (NAP) and its accompanying implementation plan approved and enacted by Cabinet on February 18, 2018.
This was a five-year forward looking roadmap to address different facets of alcohol related issues in the country.
While the previous government did show political will and leadership by approving the NAP, the government then did not fund its aspects of implementation, hence the policy has been lying idle and gathering dust.
The policy is due to be evaluated next year, yet there is nothing right now to write home about.
If and when effectively implemented, the policy will be able to address the many challenges leading to the current status quo, where Kachasu brewers are taking advantage of the gaps in regulatory provision to pollute young Zambians who are unwittingly being sucked into alcoholism, premature death from alcohol poisoning and the country losing on its potential human resource capital, let alone spending a lot of money to alcohol related losses.
Harms from drinking are not only personal and they are not limited to health.
Rather, harmful use of alcohol may also impose significant social and economic costs on society as these costs are borne by the Government and other productive sectors of the economy.
For example, at the workplace, it is known that alcohol often leads to plantaccidents, absenteeism, illnessand loss of productivity due to lack of concentration.
This may be taken lightly, but it is an important consideration, particularly for countries such as ours with lower economic wealth.
Other aspects, which may be considered as direct economic costs of alcohol consumption, relate to those that include costs incurred by hospitals and the health system, the police and criminal justice system.
On health, these encompass costs that may relate to healthcare services, such as hospitalizations resulting from motor vehicle costs, assaults and fights attributed to drinking.
Various resources and costs diverted to attending to alcohol health and medical care could be used in other sectors for the betterment of the welfare of society.
Other direct costs may arise from acts such as damage to property from vehicle crashes and arrests for being “drunk and disorderly”, as well as increased crime.
Some of the indirect costs may typically be borne by society at large, because the alcohol-attributable loss in workforce productivity can affect the economic viability of an entire community and its contribution to the wealth of the country.
Intangible costs are difficult to measure and are costs assigned to pain and suffering, and more generally to a diminished quality of life.
Such intangible costs are borne by the drinkers, as well as their families and potentially by other individuals linked to the drinker.
That is the stress experienced by the family because of the often dramatic events by the person that takes to drinking.
However, it is admittedly difficult in Zambia to measure many of these social costs linked to harmful use of alcohol as most of the available data in the country is mostly incomplete due to deficiencies in the available mechanisms for data collection.
It is against this backdrop that we would, therefore, like to applaud the stance taken by President Hichilema.
We trust that this dent in the nation can be addressed sooner than later.
The author is an alcohol harm reduction activist and founder of Alcohol Harm Reduction Project Zambia.