Curious to know the highest alcohol-consuming countries in the world? Well, if you’re a Ugandan, you have something to cheer about because, according to the recent World Bank rankings, our country is rated as the second drunkest nation in the world for the year 2022.
Looking at the amount of alcohol consumed by Ugandans aged 15 years or older, studies show that around 15.1 litres of alcohol is drunk per person per year. And the ‘baton’ is particularly held by young and old males who have quite the thirst for the hard drink.
The Seychelles, in top spot, beat us marginally after having drunk only 5.5 litres more. But it could be only a matter of time before we catch up or perhaps surpass them, especially considering that we improved by 20 percent from 2021.
However, just a few weeks after attaining that ‘milestone’, news regarding the suspected consumption of poisonous and illegally manufactured alcohol in West Nile, Northern Uganda that occurred on August 18, broke out. Today, at least 17 people have been reported dead while others are still hospitalized.
The victims, including an area LC2 chairperson, were allegedly asked to test the locally manufactured gin during a company promotion. Government later reported that results from the laboratory analysis of samples picked from the scene showed that the product was adulterated with excessive levels of methanol, above the maximum limit of 50 milligrams per litre.
It is public knowledge that only a handful of our people consume proper alcohol. In fact, 65 percent of all the alcohol consumed in Uganda is illicit. And in most cases, the bulk of alcohol consumers initially start drinking with the well-regulated beer but they quickly resort to the illegal types – waragi or spirits – once they run out of money.
In 2009, I was amused when I saw and heard the then Trade Minister Maj. Gen. (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire tell Parliament that, “…waragi doesn’t kill people…bad alcohol kills people…”. He went on, “If waragi was killing people, there would be nobody in this country”.
The truth, in my opinion, is this: alcohol, good or bad, actually does kill people and has been real poison to our growth as a nation. Our country’s high alcohol consumption has had serious social, economic and health consequences and is slowly killing both individual and community lives.
Its effects have swept across the entire Ugandan society, from families to workplaces; from businesses to government; from churches to schools; from ghettos to law enforcement, name it! Undoubtedly, alcoholism has pumped toxicity and dysfunction into the country.
There are countless examples of people whose lives have taken the worst turn due to alcohol. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, Butabika hospital was estimated to receive about 500 patients annually (it rose to 1,500 patients during the pandemic), with complications ranging from depression and other mental disorders. But available records indicate that alcohol abuse was the major contributor to these numbers.
In addition to mental health, alcohol use has immediate and long-term effects that increase the risks associated with numerous other health conditions. For instance, alcohol is a leading cause of risky sexual behaviours such as unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, and rape. These behaviours usually result in sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDs.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is also known to increase cancer of the liver, breast, colon, oesophagus, throat and mouth. Heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure – all significant health conditions in Uganda – can develop from the harmful use of alcohol.
Our heavy alcohol use also significantly contributes to our short life expectancy. In high income nations, the average life expectancy at birth was 81 years as of 2019, far higher than in almost all of the heaviest drinking nations. In Uganda, the average life expectancy was just 63 years.
Uganda has a sluggish economy amid high poverty rates and alcoholism has not helped matters. Findings by health ministry show that Uganda lost at least shs907 billion to mental health conditions in 2021, including 770b in indirect productivity losses because of people being Ill and at least shs137 billion in government expenditure on related treatment.
There’s this argument that the more people drink, the more the economy grows. True, the alcohol beverage industry in Uganda is directly and indirectly among the largest providers of formal and informal employment and generates substantial amounts of tax revenue for government.
But factually-speaking, the economic consequences of alcohol consumption outweigh the benefits. Apart from money spent on drinks, heavy drinkers suffer many economic problems such as lower wages and lost employment opportunities, increased medical and legal expenses, and decreased eligibility for loans.
Residents in many of Ugandan communities lack the necessary information to make informed health decisions. And to partly avert the problem, there are should be public health awareness efforts about the effects of alcohol consumption.
Uganda also needs an explicit and comprehensive national alcohol policy. With this policy, alcohol should be placed on other national and local planning agendas with clear strategies dedicated to alcohol abuse and problems.
We need to appreciate that we are at a risk of a whole generation being drunk down the bottle. Let’s sober up, please!
Mr. Mukalazi is a Ugandan Executive and