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Tackling Kenya’s alcoholism challenge

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Alcoholism breaks families. But humanity has never found a common approach to the problem.

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The first miracle of Jesus entailed turning water into wine in the wedding that took place in Cana of Galilee. That is what a drunkard friend of mine told me when I attempted to advice him against taking alcohol.

And that presents an acute moral dilemma of alcoholism: that probably a total prohibition may be difficult, however desirable it might be to some.

America took the total alcohol prohibition route between 1919 and 1933. State legislatures curtailed the alcohol industry leading to a total ban based on a constitutional amendment of 1919. Prohibition supporters saw a society beset by alcoholism, family violence and corridor induced by alcoholism.

But alcohol went underground. Criminal gangs seized control of the trade. But it is also true Cirrhosis, a liver disease mainly associated with alcohol, declined steeply during prohibition.

On the one hand, state revenue declined and criminal gangs emerged. But on the other hand there was a healthier nation.

That’s the conundrum which this debate presents.

Definitely research has affirmed the very negative impact of alcoholism generally. Alcoholism is a major cause of many diseases. It breaks families. But it seems humanity has never found a common approach to the alcoholism problem.

Even countries which through religious edict shun alcohol, people always try to find an alternative to get high or illegal ways to get their drink. Iran and Afghanistan, for example, have one of the highest rates of production of opium.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime's World Drugs Report 2023 shows drugs and alcohol are more of a problem in advanced countries than in the Third World. The United States leads in countries with this problem. Asia is least impacted continent.

But definitely Kenya needs to do something to avoid increasing the rate of illicit alcohol consumption. The number of zombies addicted to alcoholism seems to be on an increase.

The problem, being a complex one, requires a multi-faceted approach. It is impossible to assume the problem will be eradicated 100 per cent. But definitely these measures might reduce the problem even if by 30 per cent.

First, the economic drivers of alcoholism need to be remedied. One sees a correlation between negative alcoholism with unemployment. It appears some use alcohol to numb their negative feelings of economic frustration. Once the society grants them hope by way of creation of employment opportunities, probably alcoholism might be reduced.

Of course this tends to be long term: economic upward swings require tact and time. But as they say, an idle mind is the devil's workshop.

For instance, Industries that create employment would remove youths from the streets towards productivity, and from the probable allure of alcohol.

Second, advertisement of alcohol needs to be curtailed. A case can be made of advertisements making alcohol appear cool. But such a suggestion would receive tonnes of resistance from key stakeholders. But cigarette consumption went down when adverts were curtailed.

Probably such a pivot would require international consensus. Maybe a United Nations resolution urging countries to move towards this direction would create necessary conditions that would incentivise countries towards this direction internally.

Curtailing advertisement is not the same as prohibition. It makes alcohol consumption organic and driven by true demand. This is as opposed to “manufactured consent”.

Third, there is a space for moral norms. Particularly educational and religious institutions that shape norms. Villages that are dominated by religions that abhor alcohol tend to have lower rates of alcoholism and vice versa. Probably a curriculum that highlights dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and alcoholism is important. An internal theological discussion amongst my Catholic brethren might help towards redirecting faithful away from alcohol.

Fourth, who should regulate the alcohol sector? It has been suggested the regulator should be the national government on the ground since it does not have a vested interest unlike counties that need the revenue. Well, any regulator — whether national or county — has some merits and demerits. Enforcers tend to use this power to extract money from the hardworking innocent trader. Maybe self-regulation might cure. Good and reputable industry players get the power to self-regulate the sector — they have a profit motive to do so.

And the state extracts taxes in the process and retains overarching oversight duties. Like the way the Law Society of Kenya does in the legal profession.

Fifth, rehabilitation of addicts is important. Many people are unaware the standard National Hospital Insurance Fund package covers rehabilitation costs .

Probably this needs to be championed more because it tends to be an underutilised cover benefit even when the country shifts to SHIF.

Finally, there is space for enforcement of alcohol consumption hours. In the Western world, rarely do people party until morning. Hours for alcohol consumption are strictly enforced.

- Dr Kangata is the Governor of Murang’a County; Email [email protected].