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Alcohol consumption age to move from 18 to 21

The policy was passed by the Cabinet in November 2019 but it has never been implemented

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | The Ugandan government has announced plans to implement an earlier agreed policy to raise the legal age for alcohol consumption from 18 to 21 years.

The move was announced by the Assistant Commissioner in charge of Mental Health at the Ministry of Health, Dr Hafsa Lukwata.

She was speaking at the Second National Secondary Schools Prefects Conference an event organised at Hotel Africana in Kampala on June 22 by Drugs Hapana Initiative, an NGO, Uganda’s top mental health facility, Butabika National Referral Hospital, and CBS FM radio. The conference was held under the theme “Stand Against Drug Abuse”.

The move is part of the government’s strategy to tackle the negative effects related to alcohol abuse and its impact on public health and social welfare.

The policy to control the consumption and sale of alcohol was passed by the Cabinet in November 2019 but it has never been implemented.

Raising the legal drinking age to 21 from the current 18 is one among several measures under the policy. Others include designating sell of alcoholic beverages to licensed establishments and allocating drinking hours.

Health officials believe if implemented, the policy can guide the development of interventions to ensure safe production, sale, consumption and management of alcohol-related problems or conditions.

Data from the health ministry shows that the use of alcohol starts as early as 14 years when teenagers use alcohol in some parts of the country, especially areas where sugarcane production is carried out.

As a result, they say many of the children who use alcohol at an early age become addicted to it and later succumb to preventable diseases such as kidney or liver failure.

According to the health ministry, on average persons aged 15 and above consume 9.8 litres of alcohol a year. This is 3.6 litres more compared to the African continent average consumption which stands at 6 litres.

While the health ministry moves to implement the policy, it might take years for this policy to fully be adopted into society.

In the past, Dr Lukwata has said for the policy to have any long-lasting effects on the drinking problem in the country, needs to be backed up by law.

“Right now we have a policy that we hope can make it to parliament one day and be passed into law. However, even then, we shall need to have adequate financing to make sure that what is passed is implemented,” she said.

At the time in 2021, Dr David Kalema, the chairperson of the Uganda Alcohol Alliance and the Executive Director of Hope and Beyond Rehabilitation Center, said they are working towards sensitising the public and members of parliament about the policy.

“We have a very big underage drinking problem in this country that is leading to kidney and even liver-related illnesses. This policy can put a stop to this but we need lawmakers to know about it. So we have been carrying out several engagements to sensitize lawmakers on the health committee about the policy,” he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) which is collaborating with the Uganda government says the easy access to alcohol challenge can be handled by policy makers through establishing an effective system for domestic taxation on alcohol that raises the final price of alcohol so that the vulnerable children and adolescents cannot afford it.

The advertising standards restrict the use of direct and indirect price promotions, discount sales, sales below cost for unlimited alcohol consumption, advertising times and content in advertising scripts. Monitoring these standards is the responsibility of the Uganda Communications Commission.

The WHO says the African Region is faced with a growing burden of harmful alcohol consumption and its disastrous effects. There is no other consumer product as widely available as alcohol that accounts for as much premature death and disability.

There are two main characteristics that describe alcohol consumption patterns in the Region: a high level of alcohol abstention in some countries and high volume consumption with severe health and social consequences in others.

Alcohol use has immediate and long-term effects that increase the risks associated with numerous health conditions. Alcohol is a leading cause of risky sexual behaviours such as unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, and produces an increased risk of sexual assault. These behaviours can result in unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and HIV. In the Region, HPV is a significant threat and is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Alcohol is also known to increase cancer of the liver, breast, colon, oesophagus, throat and mouth.

Heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure – all significant health conditions in the Region – can develop from the harmful use of alcohol. Alcoholic hepatitis and scarring of the liver are also devastating outcomes of alcohol use. Alcohol abuse also causes social-economic problems like increased road accidents, domestic violence, and reduced labour productivity.

Reports indicate that the decision to increase the legal drinking age was made following consultations with various stakeholders, including healthcare providers, law enforcement officials, and community leaders.

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