Illicit brews fight calls for buy-in from society and no sacred cows

Murang'a County Commissioner Joshua Nkanatha at an illegal illicit brews factory in Gatanga, where police intercepted more than 50 counterfeit brands. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

The war against fake and poisonous alcohol can be won if communities are involved and double standards not applied.

Fake alcohol is sold in trendy joints where youngsters go for “pre-game” drinking before going to nightclubs where alcohol is more expensive. They sell cheap liquor.

Unbeknownst to these youngsters, the traders make a killing by selling fake liquor, which is far too strong, and after a few shots, they are dangerously drunk. These joints are known and spread all across cities in Kenya and should also be subject to vetting and re-licensing.

The other dangerous traders are those selling alcohol made with ethanol and methanol whose consumers are at a great risk of death or blindness. Some traders also brew these lethal drinks.

Other drinks made with chemicals used to preserve dead bodies such as formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and humectants have become commonplace and are more dangerous and lethal.

Thousands of litres of these kinds of alcohol are destroyed daily yet brewers and traders keep on brewing and selling them illicitly. This is because there is a huge market and demand for these kinds of alcohol.

The demand exists because the alcohol is very cheap and very strong so it makes those taking it drunk faster so they don’t have to spend a lot of money they don’t have. This is a huge social problem all over Kenya, more serious in some regions than others but nationwide.

Many people argue that “kienyeji” drinks like muratina/mwaatine or mnazi are less lethal and hygienically fabricated and should be licensed to avoid deaths and other critical side effects of the more lethal drinks. There is also the other aspect of over-taxation of beer and other controlled drinks produced by established breweries.

When these “legal” drinks like beer were cheaper, there was very little demand for the other lethal kinds. The exponential increase in prices of these drinks due to over-taxation has driven them out of reach of the majority of drinkers who have gone underground to consume these illicit lethal brews which leave them either dead or blind or suffering health consequences.

Alcoholism is a sickness of pandemic proportions in Kenya and criminalising drinking is not going to rid society of the demand for illicit alcohol. More people especially the youth are caught in the vicious traps of these illicit lethal brews.

Many have become addicted and non-functional in all aspects, they cannot work or socially function and many young men are not able to perform the functions of husbands and fathers. This is a disaster for a youthful nation like Kenya.

The first step the government can take is declare the consumption of these lethal brews a national disaster and deal with it the same way we deal with national disasters through investing in awareness creation, destigmatising addiction, controlling the production and sale of alcohol, and supporting the victims with the main objective of ending demand or market for them.

Criminalising production of illicit lethal brews is useful but it needs to correspond with dealing with the consumers at different levels while involving the entire community including community-based and faith-based organisations and governmental and non-governmental organisations.

The World Health Organisation proposes ten areas of policy options and intervention for dealing with alcoholism, which include providing strategic leadership, awareness, and commitment by government agencies such as NACADA without going overboard and applying double standards, health services’ response, community action, putting in place effective drink-driving policies and countermeasures, addressing the issue of demand and availability of alcohol, marketing of alcoholic beverages, pricing policies including taxation, which is a delicate balance because while you do not want to make alcohol very cheap and available you also need to balance the consumption of “clean and legal” alcohol against consuming “dirty and lethal illicit brews,” reducing the negative consequences of drinking and alcohol intoxication, reducing the public health impact of illicit alcohol and informally produced alcohol, and monitoring.

These are delicate balances that require dedication and commitment. The war against illicit brews cannot succeed alongside corruption and shifting goalposts, it must be fought comprehensively without discrimination, fear or favour.