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15 Nov 2015

“As at September 2015, a cumulative total of P1, 867,586,562 has been collected from the alcohol levy. A 2012 evaluation of the impact of our alcohol reduction campaign interventions indicated that there was a reduction in alcohol consumption from 8 liters per capita to 7 liters”, President of the Republic of Botswana, LT. GEN. SERETSE KHAMA IAN KHAMA.  

In making the presentation on alcohol levy, Dr Khama was full of smiles, appeared like someone in a joyous celebration mode, like someone who has won the battle. Despite Khama’s claims that alcohol consumption in the country has declined, recent reports show something on the contrary. It is thus a mere wishful thinking and a fallacy that does not even correlate with theWHOPPING scary figures presented by Dr Khama.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report, however, indicates that the rate of drinking in Botswana was already declining before the alcohol levy was introduced in 2008. The report says that Botswana's alcohol consumption went down in a five-year period from 2000-2005. Published in 2011, the report shows that consumption has been falling in other African countries like Burundi, Gabon, Lesotho, Madagascar and Swaziland. In Botswana, the report shows that the all time high consumption of alcohol was recorded in 2002 when the country experienced a sharp rise in drinking spirits to six litres per person. However, the high rate of consumption of spirits decreased to four litres per person by 2005.  

Most interestingly is the observation by the WHO report that the spirits in Botswana are consumed by only 1% of the alcohol drinking population. The report says beer drinkers constitute 57% of alcohol consumers in Botswana. The consumption of other alcoholic beverages (traditional brews) remained stable in Botswana at two liters per person throughout the five-year estimate by the WHO. About 42% of alcohol consumers in Botswana drink homemade brews. Thus showing that traditional brews are also a hit in Botswana.

Dr Khama’s presentation on the alcohol levy left me in stitches and also somewhat puzzled. Primarily because there has been a shift in the policy agenda of the levy itself and I do not even know what to call it now.

I wish to posit by asking - Is this really worth celebrating?

Has the levy now been turned into a cash cow?

Has it been able to address its intended policy objectives?

In his inauguration speech on April fool day 2008, President Ian Khama set the record straight and made his intensions clear that fighting alcohol abuse in the country was going to be one of his key priority areas. Ian Khama who is a huge anti-alcohol proponent unilaterally made the decision to introduce the alcohol levy, immediately after assuming the presidency. Initially the levy was set at 30% when it was first introduced in November 2008. He wanted to reduce alcohol consumption to reduce crime, road accidents and the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The introduction of the levy will complement other government efforts to reduce alcohol consumption, including education programs at schools and promoting alcohol-free youth activities through sports and entertainment.

The above measures are consistent with recognition by government and other stakeholders that alcohol and other forms of substance abuse contribute to a wide range of anti-social, risky and criminal behaviors in society including child abuse, violence against women and homicides, as well as death on our roads,'' the presidency said. Khama had even gone to the extent of threatening that if the levy doesn't reduce alcohol abuse within three months, an additional 30 percent will be imposed. 

Khama proposed laws to raise minimum drinking age, limit in trading hours and introduced tax levy on alcohol. According to WHO report, 2014, due to lack of entertainment facilities (ones which exclude alcohol consumption) in Botswana, alcohol abuse particularly amongst the youth has always been rampant and now there has been a greater shift to the consumption of Madaena, Matekwane (Marijuana), crack cocaine and other serious hard core drugs.

It must be noted that despite the implementation of the levy on all alcoholic beverages in November 1, 2008, Kgalagadi Breweries Ltd. and Botswana Breweries Ltd., both units of London-based SAB Miller Plc had opposed the planned increase, which was first announced in July. In Sept. 29 2008, Botswana’s High Court blocked the imposition of the tax pending the appointment of a panel of judges to hear the brewers' opposition to the plan. Khama’s tough stand against alcohol abuse was also met with much skepticism with some legislators referring to it as government’s war on fun.

In a strange twist of events the Presidency later made a pronouncement stating that “government has received a formal notice of withdrawal of application from the applicant's attorney meaning that implementation of the levy shall now proceed” VERY STRANGE indeed.

It is also worth noting that over the last decades, batches of homemade hooch have caused misery amongst the urban & rural poor in Botswana causing high rates of violent crimes, rape, knifing and many more social ills at shebeens. The illegal booze is the most conspicuous and the dangers of Botswana’s make shift beverages should not be underestimated. The names alone invoke deadly potency: Tho-tho-tho (the dizzy spell), Laela Mmago (Bid your mum farewell), Bleksem, Skop donorr, Ola la fa, Sekipa se ntekanye, Tipi ya Mokwatla, kubuga and itlhalose.  Another alcohol problem facing Botswana is that the sheer volume of branded alcohol being consumed is also increasingly causing health problems.

Alcohol consumption and its consequence effects have been on the rise in Africa. As a result of that the governments have been struggling to find suitable legislation amidst profit-hungry global corporations and illegal produced liquor. Complicating the issue further is the prevalence of illegally produced local alcohol. These drinks are usually extremely potent, often dangerous and occasionally lethal.

The public health impact of illicit alcohol and informally produced alcohol should be reduced and this should be backed by evidence base policy and intervention options regarding unrecorded alcohol consumption.  The most simplistic option to reduce unrecorded consumption would be to lower recorded alcohol prices to remove the economic incentive of buying unrecorded alcohol. Other policy options will be to narrowing cross-border shopping and this can be addressed by reducing or by narrowing the tax differences, or stricter control.

Even though there are suggestions and theories on how to reduce unrecorded alcohol consumption, there is currently no clear evidence base on the effectiveness or cost effectiveness of available policy options.

*Thabo Lucas Seleke is a researcher in Health Policy and Health Systems strengthening

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