Africa's Binge Drinkers Tempt Big Alcohol
Binge drinking adds to violence, birth defects and HIV. But Western companies have their eye on a thriving market.
As Western alcohol companies begin to swoop in on the African market, countries like South Africa, Kenya and Zambia face an overwhelming problem with alcohol abuse—and politicians are under increasing pressure to crack down. Africa has the highest proportion of binge drinkers, at about 25% of the population, despite the fact that large numbers of Muslims and evangelical Christians do not drink alcohol. "It's true that most people in Africa don't drink for cultural, religious and economic reasons but those who drink, drink a lot," says Dr. Vladimir Poznyak of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva. Alcohol abuse has contributed to increased rates of driving accidents, violent crime and HIV, and about 122 out of every 1,000 children are born with illnesses like fetal alcohol syndrome—compared to about 8 per 1,000 babies in the US. Education about substance abuse is generally lacking, and laws to prevent underage drinking and drunk driving are rarely enforced. To make matters worse, brewers and distillers like SABMiller, Diageo, and Heineken are increasingly targeting African markets by offering “traditional” cultural beverages, sponsoring local football matches and running ads promoting "female empowerment." SABMiller is investing $2.5 billion over the next five years into breweries in Africa, and Diageo’s sales on the continent have risen on average by 15% each year for last five years.
These companies could risk losing their burgeoning alcohol market if the African governments do finally crack down on alcohol abuse. South Africa is considering a new law that would restrict alcohol advertising, raise the minimum drinking age to 21 and enforce stricter penalties for drunk driving. It would also raise booze taxes and propose warning labels on containers. Other countries like Kenya are looking to create similar laws. However, the beer breweries argue that increased taxes will actually be more damaging to the health of African drinkers: “The alternative is that lower income people who wish to consume liquor will buy illicit and potentially dangerous alcohol," says Vincent Maphai, executive director of Corporate Affairs at SABMiller's South African unit—referencing the dangerous home-brews often containing lethal ingredients such as battery acid. Still, health officials are mainly concerned with getting the binge drinking under control. "In spite of all economic benefits that increased investments in alcohol production and sales can bring, the health of the population should be properly protected and this should be a priority," Poznyak says. "Health is the best investment, also from an economic point of view, in any society."