BY CALVIN OTIENO
If Kenyan consumers of illicit brews do not fear death or blindness, it is very unlikely they will fear any new set of laws. That is the message someone must urgently pass to Naivasha MP John Mututho and other proponents of hasty regulation. It won’t just work. This is why.
In African societies, traditional brews not only account for the highest proportion of alcohol consumption but also carry some cultural connotations. Kenya is no exception.
In virtually all the communities in Kenya, there exists a host of traditional alcoholic drinks often brewed under proper hygienic and distillery standards maintaining them as safe and affordable but considered illegal due to colonial-era ban on traditional local drinks.
On paper, the government imposed a similar ban in the 1980s. Regrettably, this has never stopped the brewing of traditional alcoholic products. In recent weeks, the media has been awash with reports of unfortunate deaths and blindness arising from consumption of illicit brews passing as traditional liquor.
The brews, said to be laced with industrial chemicals notably formalin and ethanol, are highly potent. The deadly and easily sourced chemicals are a recipe for other severe health problems.
Has the government done enough? Yes, to some extent. The police in their usual show of bravado have always raided drinking dens. They seize or pour such drinks and end up arresting a few culprits too weak to run away. Such spins only happen whenever a few deaths are reported.
Skeptics of police interventions see a predictable sequence of events replaying – from police arrests, money changing hands, release of suspects and then business as usual thriving. “Protection fees” in form of bribes are paid mostly by brewers, distributors and retailers of such drinks which dot nearly every urban informal settlement.
In August 1998, more than 80 people died in Machakos after consuming traditional brews laced with methanol. Tragedy struck again in 2000 when 130 people perished and over 390 were hospitalised in various stages of stupor in the same town. Over 20 people bade farewell to their functional eyesight.
Do Kenyans ever learn any lesson from such tragic incidents? Obviously they do but as many illicit brew consumers are often quick to reply, there are no options which brings us to the crux of the matter on the illicit brew debate on whether to regulate or not to regulate.
The popularity of such brews does not only emanate from people’s poverty, a pervading sense of hopelessness and social stress. It is also about the long history of government condemnation. The same length is being reflected in their consumer’s loyalty which won’t change overnight because Parliament has enacted a new set of laws.
It is also about their apt “functionality” and how they meet the “kill-me-quick” expectations of their loyalists. The proximity of its availability adds to its popularity even in the midst of its certain tragic ends. Recall that they have an all important cultural identity attached to, say, circumcision!
Most, if not all existing pieces of legislations on alcohol, have failed their own test in the control of brewing and consumption of traditional brews as their consumption continues unabated and is unlikely to be significantly altered by any legislation.
This may well be attributed to the fact that the mainstream alcoholic brands are relatively expensive and out of reach of the poor consumers. The fact that majority of the youth consuming illicit brews are turned away by the 18-year age limit discourages them from growing anticipating they can consume EABL drinks.
A survey carried out by the National Alcohols and Beverages Association of Kenya (NABAK) in 2003 reveals that consumption of illicit brews constitutes at least 60 percent of the total alcohol consumption pattern in the country. The figure could be slightly higher at the moment with Keroche Industries estimating it to be at 75 percent.
What is unfortunate though, is that there exists no specific policy to make safe alcoholic drinks affordable to such a significant number of consumers especially in urban informal settlements.
Kenya does not, therefore, need a rushed legislation. It needs a national alcohol drinking policy, information, education and communication programme. An uninformed regulation on illicit brew will not achieve any significant element. You can regulate the body and the mind – but you can’t regulate the spirit around illicit drinks and its consumers.
Since the year 2003 the government has been increasing tax on alcoholic drinks and this is often passed on the consumers in the form of higher prices. In such a scenario, the demand for cheap alcoholic drinks is inevitable.
The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority (NACADA) established way back in 2001ostensibly to provide the impetus in stemming narcotic abuse, including these drinks have failed miserably. The recent call by NACADA for legalisation of traditional brews is damning admission that this country is desperately in need of a proper alcohol policy to regulate the industry.
Such a policy should seek to license smaller and medium sized brewers to encourage competition, however this should be followed by regulation so as to ensure that quality is not compromised to the detriment of the consumer. Unscrupulous dealers will naturally exit the scene. Market forces will come into play and as they say, the rest will be history.
In any economic set up, sectors that operate without some form of regulation are open to abuse and unfair business practices often to the detriment of the consumer. Rent seeking and bribery as is the case in the traditional alcohol industry hurts the economy and denies the government the much needed revenue.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Bill 2009 – even if assented into the law by the President – will mean little if not heighten the cost of doing business for legitimate enterprises.
(The writer is a Program Officer at the Consumers Federation of Kenya – firstname.lastname@example.org)