Illicit alcohol, the unchecked silent killer in Uganda

Jackie Tahakanizibwa is Secretary General, Uganda Alcohol Industry Association

Summary:

  • Several media reports have emerged on the serious health risks that this unregulated alcohol poses to its consumers including deaths and blindness as a result of methanol poisoning as seen in various news reports from different parts of Uganda.

The Euromonitor Illicit Alcohol Trade Report of 2021 found that the trade of licit, also known as regulated alcohol accounts for 35% of all alcohol consumed in Uganda while illicit alcohol accounts for 65%. Illicit alcohol is produced illegally, outside of the approved and regulated production processes of registered and legitimate manufacturers.

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And yet, the manufacture for ‘domestic use or traditional ceremonies’ has expressly been excluded from the proposed Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill, 2023. This exclusion continues to present the risk of increased illicit trade as most of the illicit alcohol in the country is made under the disguise of homebrew for domestic use and is instead sold to the public who often have no avenues for recourse since the manufacturers and sellers of this illicit alcohol are operating underground and difficult to trace. In Uganda, illicit alcohol consists of three categories; illicit homebrew, illicit/illegal imports, and counterfeit alcoholic beverages with the most common homebrews including waragi, malwa and tonto. The alcoholic content in this type of alcohol is neither measured nor regulated and poses great health risks

Several media reports have emerged on the serious health risks that this unregulated alcohol poses to its consumers including deaths and blindness as a result of methanol poisoning as seen in various news reports from different parts of Uganda. According to various media reports, in October 2009, 5 people succumbed to death in Kasese after drinking crude waragi; in 2010, more than 80 people died in Kabale after drinking waragi; in June 2017, 11 people also died in Nansana after consuming toxic gin; in August 2022, 17 people died in Arua after consuming adulterated alcohol and most recently in August 2023, 10 lives were lost, including two children who died after consuming waragi in Kyotera District. One can only imagine the numerous unreported cases.

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Secondly, Illicit alcohol also denies the country the much-needed revenue in the form of unpaid taxes, with the risk of the proceeds of such illicit sales potentially being used to fund criminal activity which could compromise the country’s national security. According to the Euromonitor Study, earlier alluded to, the country loses approximately USD 458 Million (UGX 1.724 Trillion) in unpaid tax revenues annually.

Regulating illicit alcohol would ensure that previously unregulated manufacturers adhere to manufacturing regulations and other legislation crafted to regulate the sector. This would include enacting legislation that forbids the sale of illegal alcohol, including craft brews that are becoming more and more popular but are not subject to production standards or taxation.

In addition, consumers must be educated about the dangers of consuming illicit alcohol as an important aspect of regulating this sector. This can be done through public awareness campaigns, warning labels, and partnerships with community organizations.

At the Uganda Alcohol Industry Association (UAIA), one of our main objectives is to formulate voluntary code [s] of conduct or co-ordinate member company policies in a manner which will promote responsibility in the marketing and use of alcoholic beverages and enhance the freedom of its members to market in a spirit of self regulation as opposed to legislation. In furtherance of this, the Association adopted the UAIA Responsible Code 2023 which provides that all of UAIA’s members’ marketing communication must be in a manner that promotes responsibility in the marketing and use of alcoholic beverages.

The industry also has made strides towards driving positive behaviour change through collective Responsible Drinking Initiatives, advocating for drinking in moderation and continuing to address the harmful use of alcohol by changing attitudes and expanding its programs that tackle underage drinking, drunk driving, and binge drinking.

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Among adults, alcohol consumption is behavioural and cannot be checked by embargos on drinking times that the Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill, 2023, in its current form, is proposing. These limitations on bar operations will instead encourage binge drinking at home which is a dangerous alcohol misuse trait. We should instead focus on ridding our society of easy-to-get illicit alcohol that is a health hazard for our population.

It is therefore critical that the government applies the right level of focus to curbing the significant problem of illicit trade in alcohol in Uganda by putting in place robust provisions under the Bill to prohibit illicit alcohol including informal alcohol such as native brews which are increasingly being commercialized without being subjected to any production standards or the payment of taxes. Illicit alcohol also creates an unfair playing field for legitimate alcohol players since those involved do not pay taxes or have to comply with production standards. This regulatory imbalance threatens legal investors and could ultimately drive them away to countries that are more protective of legitimate investment.

 Jackie Tahakanizibwa is Secretary General, Uganda Alcohol Industry Association

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