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Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use

Harmful Drinking and Non-commercial Alcohol
Policies to reduce harmful drinking must factor in the widespread consumption of non-commercial alcohol

Who has not been saddened and shocked by headlines in the news such as: “Kampala—Another 27 people have died after drinking poisonous alcohol in Gulu district. This brings to 60 the number of the people who have died after drinking ‘poisonous’ alcohol over the last two months”?

But how well do governments and health experts understand issues related to noncommercial and illicit alcohol?  

Because of its very nature, it is difficult to fully grasp and regulate the informal alcohol sector. However, commercial alcohol producers are well-positioned to help take on the challenge of understanding and regulating the production and consumption of noncommercial products. Indeed, they have been actively working with governments across the sub-Saharan continent to identify and implement solutions, demonstrating that African business can be relied upon to find innovative and “win-win” solutions.

Understandably, a comprehensive grasp of what drives the consumption of noncommercial alcohol is a major preoccupation for both governments and businesses alike. Later in 2010, the World Health Organization is going to submit for approval to 193 Health Ministers a global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol; and governments across the African continent will be guided by this document’s policy recommendations.

What’s the issue?

At the crux of this issue is the fact that illicit and noncommercial beverages are consumed more commonly around the world than many people may realize. The volume of noncommercial alcohol production is large, found in virtually every country around the world. In some areas, it may account for more than half of all alcohol consumed (although varying widely from community to community).
The manufacture, sale, and consumption of such beverages are not reflected in official government statistics but can represent an important part of local economies. For example, in rural Africa, many women engage in the production and sale of traditional beverages as their main commercial activity and as a means of supporting their families. Moreover, since these products are untaxed and can use low-cost ingredients and production methods, they tend to be cheaper (volume for volume) than their commercial counterparts.

There are numerous examples of popular traditional drinks produced around the world for home consumption or limited local trade—for example, Chang’aa in Kenya and Sorghum beer. Although such drinks tend to be of high quality, the production process itself may pose some risks for contamination.
Of even greater concern from a policy standpoint are two other categories of noncommercial alcohol: mass-produced illicit beverages and nonbeverage, or surrogate alcohols (intoxicating liquids not intended for drinking). Such products have wide-ranging implications.

As a significant portion of all alcohol produced, particularly in developing countries, is unregulated, untaxed, and unrecorded, the issue of noncommercial alcohol is relevant in terms of public health, tax and revenue, rule of law, and corruption. For instance, illicit alcohol production and trade can be associated with organized crime and thus represent a significant public order and safety challenge.

Also importantly, in many countries where such beverages are prevalent, health policies that seek to reduce harmful drinking cannot be developed without giving due consideration to noncommercial and illicit alcohol.

Moreover, policies aimed at curtailing the availability of commercially produced drinks, whether through physical availability controls or price increase, can boost the production of noncommercial beverages and may shift trade toward the gray and black markets.  

Insights to Consider

It is the hope of the ARA that the WHO’s recommendations will take into consideration the reality of informal alcohol markets in many countries. The results may be of limited impact at best and, at worst, may even lead to negative consequences.

To help inform and contribute to discussions with WHO and Health and Finance Ministries as well as other relevant organizations, the International Center for Alcohol Policies (www.icap.org) has produced a book called “Working Together to Reduce Harmful Drinking,” which includes a number of references to noncommercial alcohol.  The intention is that, as countries across Africa look at developing or reviewing their alcohol policies, they factor in the challenges presented by informal markets and note the potential of positive contribution from the beverage alcohol industry in reducing the potential of harm.

What has been done and what more can be done?

Major alcohol producers across the continent have long been aware of the challenges presented by informal products.  They have seen the problems caused by smuggling and counterfeiting of their brands, and it is not uncommon to see consumers choosing to purchase noncommercial drinks when governments decide to raise alcohol prices.
For this reason, major alcohol producers see it as important to offer affordable quality alternatives to illicit alcohol, to work with government agencies to establish local codes for serving practices, and to support governments’ anti-counterfeiting efforts through partnerships with local authorities and technological innovations in packaging.

In addition, major alcohol producers have made strides in agreeing to industry-wide quality and safety standards for new products—codes that can serve as guidance for all producers and public health agencies committed to ensuring safe and responsible consumption in local and developing markets.
An example of such an initiative comes from South Africa, where the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) developed a code for retail traders. This code is aimed at those who sell and serve beverage alcohol within a legitimate framework and in licensed premises. However, in a country where the consumption of noncommercial beverages in unregistered venues, shebeens, is widespread and exceeds that in legal venues, this code represents a pragmatic effort to adapt to everyday reality and to encourage those operating outside the legal framework to adhere to certain standards of operation.

It should also be noted that global producers have committed to implementing the same product quality and safety controls across the board internationally, even where local controls have not been established, are not well-enforced, or are less stringent than industry guidelines. Such standards can serve as a resource for government agencies in developing marketplaces as they seek to ensure public health and safety.

Going forward: Contributing to the WHO global strategy to reduce harmful drinking

In addition to the existing initiatives and drive to innovate, the beverage alcohol producers can:

- help improve understanding of this sector so that the interaction between policies and drinking can be better observed and evaluated, and cross-country comparisons can be made;

- provide consumer education and information about illicit alcohol, raising awareness about potential risks and drinking patterns;

- undertake broad public campaigns to raise awareness about existing laws, enforcement, and possible punitive measures;

- offer training, incentives, and funding to assist noncommercial producers to establish alternative income-generating businesses; and

- collaborate with governments and other relevant authorities to provide training to customs and enforcement officers and continue investing in and deploying relevant technologies.

Noncommercial alcohol has had a place in cultures and societies for literally ages, across the globe.  Addressing a matter in such a context, with inherent complexities, calls for due consideration and counsel. If WHO’s recommendations are well-rooted in the realities of this issue, they are far more likely to be effective in practice as well.

Adrian Botha, author of “Understanding Alcohol Availability: Noncommercial beverages” in the recently published book: “Working Together to Reduce Harmful Drinking” (www.icap.org).  He is Executive Director of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA), a social aspects organization in South Africa

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