Tungamirai Zimonte and William Ntakuka
WE all know the African proverb: “health is wealth”. It shows how important good health and well-being are to the African people.
In one of his songs, ‘Mupfumi Ndiani’, the late Zimbabwean music superstar and national hero, Oliver Mtukudzi supported the wise saying, stating that good health and well being is more important than monetary and material well being.
As African communities, we yearn for a paradigm shift leading to improvements in the area of health, healthcare and disease prevention.
This week health activists were participating in a highly important, but somewhat overlooked meeting of the World Health Organisation in the African Region.
The 47-member countries of the World Health Regional Office for Africa gathered digitally for the annual regional committee meeting discussing an ambitious agenda ranging from the Covid-19 response to digital health.
It emerged that there are many challenges and threats to health and development which communities are facing.
These range from the coronavirus pandemic, HIV and Aids and the epidemic of chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and mental ill-health.
In the face of these and more challenges, we are hoping for the commitment of African health leaders to take bold steps and wise decisions in order to live up to our “health is wealth” adage.
But in reviewing the agenda items and meeting documents, the absence of a discussion on alcohol harm and corresponding alcohol policy solutions took us aback.
Africa bears the heaviest alcohol burden in the world.
While the majority of adults in Africa lives free from alcohol, more than 60 percent of the continent’s alcohol users engage in heavy episodic consumption.
The products (for example ultra-cheap beer) and the practices (aggressive marketing and ruthless lobbying) of the alcohol industry are wreaking havoc in our communities and societies.
They fuel violence and road traffic fatalities, abuse and neglect of children, drive diseases such as cancer, mental ill-health, and heart disease, as well as tuberculosis, and HIV and Aids.
They also cause massive loss of human capital and economic productivity and growth.
In South Africa, the combined tangible and intangible costs of alcohol harm to the economy reached nearly R300 billion or 10–12 percent of the Growth Domestic Product.
In Kenya, alcohol threatens the “Big 4 Flagship Initiative” that aims to advance sustainable development through bold action across four priority areas: manufacturing, universal healthcare coverage, affordable housing and food security.
During the ongoing pandemic, the lethal interaction between alcohol and Covid-19 comes into sharp focus: alcohol environments became super-spreader events, alcohol harm pushes our health systems and emergency services to the brink of capacity, and alcohol use weakens the immune system.
At the same time, a majority of African countries still does NOT even have a written national alcohol policy.
That is why we are calling on African health leaders to finally make alcohol policy solutions the priority they clearly should be.
Alcohol policy solutions are available and some African countries — such as Kenya with its ground-breaking alcohol law, or South Africa with its temporary alcohol sales bans during Covid-19 — prove that evidence-based alcohol policy making promotes health and development.
Health is wealth, but pervasive alcohol harm fuelled by an ever more aggressive alcohol industry stands in the way of achieving it.
Therefore, we call for investments in alcohol policy solutions.
High-impact alcohol policy measures, such as raising taxes, banning advertising, and reducing availability of alcohol, generate $9 for every $1 invested.
In 2010, the World Health Organisation showed that raising taxes on alcohol to 40 percent of the retail price could have an even bigger impact than a 50 percent increase in tobacco taxation.
For 12 low-income countries, that would mean a drop in alcohol use by more than 10 percent, while tax revenues would more than triple to a level amounting to 38 percent of total health spending in those countries.
This is what African families and communities need: falling alcohol use, rising tax revenue to strengthen our health systems and improving health and well-being.
It is time to put alcohol policy on the agenda. It is time for a decade of action to prevent and reduce alcohol harm in Africa — the rewards will be better health and bigger wealth.