Radical measures needed to halt alcohol-linked deaths

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By MACHEL WAIKENDA

The country has witnessed yet more fatalities due to alcohol as more than 20 people died from taking illicit brews in Rift Valley. To make even this more than a grave matter, a Form One student from Uasin Gishu County died while a Form Two student was admitted to hospital in Nyeri County after taking a toxic brew.

We have learnt that at least 78 manufacturing lines of alcoholic beverages have now been closed down following the scores of deaths occasioned by consumption of drinks laced with methanol.

How these killer brews existed in the first place, is an issue that we are yet to hear being addressed by State officers. But maybe it is not surprising that an assistant chief, who is supposed to be dealing with such brews, died in Kapsabet. This is not surprising as the brews have not spared provincial administrators, teachers, farmers, boda boda cyclists and parents at large, but the largest number of victims are aged under 35 years. Is it not time to declare alcohol a National Disaster and hold a national conversation/dialogue to save lives?

I work with young people every day of my life and I dare say that the death of any youth is one death too many, just like the felling of one elephant or rhino for its trophy body part is one piece of heritage too many.

Indeed, the harrowing tales by inebriated young people, telling the world that they are lucky to be alive and the sight of so many others being carted to their final resting place in coffins is hard to stomach.

That illicit brew is knocking down Kenyans like nine-pins in their prime of economic usefulness and of child-bearing age is testament to a nation that has lost its moral and spiritual authority. Serving methanol-laced toxic drinks is unacceptable and calls for intense soul-searching.

Drug and alcohol problems are not confined to particular regions but are widespread and affect many families in the country. In particular, we must encourage young people to participate in activities that will build their lives. We also need to re-examine the role of the reinvigorated Provincial Administration. Are our laws too lenient, such that merchants of death can still literally serve poison without a care beyond the profit motive?

Drug abuse and, in particular, high alcohol consumption among the youth in Kenya is on the increase and has become a menace to the economy and security. With youths constituting the largest portion of the population at 60 per cent, they provide a huge market for alcohol products and also an easy target for the industry.

Is there lack of capacity to enforce rules and regulations on the manufacture, quality assurance, distribution and pricing of all manner of alcoholic beverages? Is the NACADA a toothless bulldog whose officers are paid to attend the occasional press conference and ventilate when some or other village mourns?

Who will ensure that the 78 banned brands of alcohol stay banned and off the shelves and drinking dens? What is the veracity of the claims that the KRA is culpable for having sold a poisonous substance that unscrupulous “death-preneurs” have diverted into drinking dens? Should we add this onus of protecting these vulnerable young lives on the county governments, since these are the most visible authority on the ground?

In my experience, young people need activities such as sports and economic empowerment so as to join in nation building and cut down on the idle-time available to imbibe in life-threatening pursuits like binge-drinking.

NACADA estimates that half of all alcohol and drug abusers in Kenya are between 10 and 19 years old. The NACADA strategic plan for 2009 to 2014 estimates that alcohol and drug abuse is highest among young Kenyan adults between the ages of 15 and 29. In fact, among the “weapons of mass destruction” of youths, alcohol is the most misused drug in Kenya but even more worrying is the fact that consumers are starting at much younger ages.

With such statistics, there’s need to protect the youth from drug and alcohol abuse if we want to propel this country in the right direction. This can only be done through reduction of consumption of these substances by ensuring that they engage in other activities.

All leaders must prioritize the fight against substance abuse in their policies and ensure there are activities and incentives to keep young people off the vice. This would create more awareness and also make it a serious issue warranting urgent action.

These policies must also address issues relating to the economy as we live at an age where alcohol is becoming cheaper than food. We must address this disparity by ensuring we create job opportunities for young people.

Surely, there are strategies for engaging the youth through empowerment, education, and employment. If we can do so much to ensure only elephants wear ivory, rhinos sport their horn, turtles breed in peace, and snakes slither around unmolested, the least we can do is develop and implement appropriate interventions to mitigate the risks and challenges the youth face.

(The writer is a political and communications consultant. Twitter @MachelWaikenda)

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