New laws on alcohol call for sober minds
Before President Kibaki signed the Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill 2009 into law, this newspaper warned that though well-meaning, the Bill needed to be reviewed because of flaws that could render it bad law.
The motives behind the new laws, meant to regulate the production and sale of all alcoholic drinks, including traditional brews like Chang’aa and Busaa, is noble and justified.
The industry has been overdue for some form of regulation, but certain aspects of the new laws, including certain restrictions on advertising will undoubtedly lead to loss of jobs.
Chang’aa has received the most attention because of its devastating effects on families. It has always been cheaper than beer because it has been brewed in unsanitary conditions without observing basic minimum requirements for health and sanitation. The new laws will make chang’aa more expensive, but still cheaper than beer. However, unless properly enforced, they will not stamp out completely the horrible conditions under which most of the chang’aa is brewed. This newspaper’s call for caution is primarily prompted by concerns that the State lacks the teeth and capacity to enforce the demanding provisions of the Bill, especially with regard to compliance with standards and quality.
There is also concern that some of the requirements, especially with regard to quality — like the demand that all alcoholic drinks, including traditional brews like chang’aa be bottled and not sold in sachets — could force illicit brewers underground and into the control of gangs. And there is the danger that established brewers may be switch to making Chang’aa to protect their downstream revenues, locking out smaller brewers. The Bill is now law, but those concerns are as valid now as they were when we mentioned them one month ago.
Today Chang’aa drinkers and brewers all over the country are no doubt celebrating what they see as a new dawn of unbridled drinking and prosperity. Most have not read or been educated on the contents of the new laws. This is a serious oversight because without proper understanding of the spirit of the regulations and the heavy penalties involved in breaking them, the spirit of the Act will be defeated and much havoc will be wreaked before order is restored.
The framers of the new laws were spurred on by the tragic cases of drinkers of illicit brews being blinded, rendered impotent or killed after downing concoctions laced with ethanol.
The new laws could end the tyranny of harassment and extortion by the police and village chiefs who helped prop up the illicit trade by looking the other way in return for bribes, only swinging into action only after public outcry.
The new law has harsh penalties for those who flout it.
For one, the drink shall only be manufactured, packed, sold, or distributed in glass bottles of a capacity of not less than 250 millilitres. The drink shall also not be sold to those under age 18. The law seeks to protect minors — defined as those under the age of 18. Also, those who sell adulterated chang’aa, could spend five years in jail or pay a fine of Sh5 million. Retailers must also display health warnings on the dangers of drinking alcohol. It is doubtful if this would be effective given the fact that a similar legal requirement for cigarettes has failed to discourage more youth from picking up the dangerous and addictive habit.
The law also provides for the rehabilitation of alcoholics, which is a good thing.
One leading brewer has long been engaged in a campaign to encourage "responsible drinking" by working with outlets that sell its products. Such a campaign is expensive, and requires a significant cash nest to roll out. However, such efforts will have to become the norm under the new laws. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) Authority must work with established brewers to roll out an educative campaign on the new laws.
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