Mt Kenya stakeholders oppose proposed county alcohol control laws

alcohol, alcoholism, binge drinking, whisky beer

Lower sales of beer and other commodities are likely to cost the National Treasury Sh133.5 billion in projected revenue.

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A proposed law aimed at controlling the distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol has caused an uproar in the Mt Kenya region, with stakeholders saying the law, if implemented, will kill businesses and put thousands of people out of work.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has been at the forefront of pushing for strict laws on the production and distribution of alcohol, saying it is the only way to save society from being destroyed by alcoholism. Mr Gachagua came under heavy criticism earlier this year when he said only one bar would be licensed in each town.

County assemblies in Nyeri and Meru are already holding public consultations on the Alcoholic Beverages Control Bill 2023 in preparation for its enactment, which has already passed its first reading.

At the centre of the controversy are a number of regulations to be enacted, some of which investors have described as "outrageous" and "mischievous" and which, if implemented, would lead to the closure of bars and hotels with devastating effects on the region's economy.

While stakeholders in Othaya, Nyeri County, rejected the bill during a public participation exercise, the exercise will be held in Meru on 23 November. Mr Peter Muhoro, chairman of bar owners in Othaya, said they would not allow such a "draconian" law to be enacted.

"For example, we will be kicked out of a committee that will inspect our establishments, while a pastor will be included. How is a pastor going to inspect a bar? He will stand outside and order it closed. It's like mixing goats with hyenas," said Mr Muhoro.

"The law also restricts our opening hours and seems to destroy the existing ones. For a bar in a hotel, we are told to open from 1 pm to 11 pm. How are we going to stay in business? It means we will all close down," he added. 

Manufacturers and distributors of alcoholic beverages who flout the law will be fined Sh2 million or jailed for five years, while offenders who hawk, sell to minors or transport in an unauthorised manner will be fined.

"Hawking" is defined as any act of selling, packing, distributing or ancillary acts by a person without a licence. Any person convicted of the offence of hawking alcohol commits an offence and shall be liable to a fine not exceeding Sh1 million or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to both," reads part of the Nyeri and Meru bills.

Distribution of alcohol will only be allowed using branded vehicles between 9am and 6pm and anyone found distributing alcohol using a boda boda will be fined Sh100,000.

Those found distributing alcohol using an estate car will be fined Sh200,000 and those using a lorry will be fined Sh1 million.

The law also seeks to introduce policing of people's behaviour, with bar owners expected to judge whether a customer has had enough or not, and to demand identification to prove that their customers are not underage.

Selling alcohol to uniformed police officers will also get a licensed bar owner in trouble. Such a person can be fined Sh50,000 or imprisoned for three months.

A licensee who sells alcohol to an already intoxicated consumer will also be fined Sh10,000.

"Any licensee who gives an alcoholic beverage to a person who is already intoxicated or in any way encourages or incites him to consume an alcoholic beverage commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding Sh10,000," it adds.

The bill also seeks to punish residents found drunk in public places. It allows a police officer to arrest any drunk and disorderly person and produce him or her in court. The person will have to pay a fine of Sh1,000 or serve a jail term of three months or both.

Selling alcohol to a person under the age of 18 will also attract a fine of Sh150,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both, and if one is arrested for selling alcohol to a driver, they will be fined Sh20,000 or imprisoned for two months.

The Bill also prohibits the sale of traditional alcohol in the county without a valid licence.

Stakeholders in the entertainment industry now say that if the laws are implemented as is, the impact will be felt across the board as the sector supports hundreds of thousands of Kenyans.

 Boniface Gachoka, the national secretary general of the Bars, Hotels and Liquor Traders Association (BAHLITA), said at least 50 per cent of the 3,000 bars in Meru will close if the laws are implemented.

"In Meru alone, of the 80,000 people directly and indirectly employed in the sector, we estimate that 44,000 will be rendered jobless. If the laws are implemented across the region, it will spell doom for the sector," he said in an interview.

The Boda Boda Safety Association of Kenya has also condemned a clause in the bill that bans the use of motorbikes to distribute alcohol. The association says the clause is unfair to the sub-sector, which is a source of livelihood for the youth in particular.

"By restricting boda bodas from transporting alcohol, the law effectively limits the transport options available, which could inconvenience those who wish to enjoy alcohol responsibly at social gatherings," reads part of their memorandum.

"Boda boda operators rely heavily on the transport of various goods, including alcohol, to make a living. The proposed clause, if enacted, would result in a significant loss of income for boda boda operators, affecting their financial stability and potentially forcing some out of employment," it said.