Opinion

Kenyans can't afford the high cost of cheap booze

Kenyan men spend more on alcohol than on education for their children. As a deterrent to combat the high social and economic costs of this public-health problem, Kenya should raise its tax on alcohol.

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In rural Kenyan villages, it is not uncommon to see more pubs than schools or medical clinics. Dusty, underfed children sometimes stand barefoot outside, while their fathers sit behind a mud wall making pints of lager disappear.

"[T]he [world's] poorest families spend about 20 percent of incomes – 10 times as much as on education – on a combination of alcohol, tobacco, prostitution, sugary drinks and candy, and extravagant festivals," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in 2010. "And evidence is very strong ... that this is largely because the purse strings are controlled by men."

Kenya is one of these places.

A 2004 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 20 percent of Kenyan males drink five or more days a week, while only 2 percent of women drink as often. Kenya is far too poor to consume this much alcohol.

A half-liter of Kenyan beer, the most popular beverage according to the WHO, ranges from about a dollar for a popular national brand to a few pennies for an unlicensed lager.

A partial solution to Kenya's alcohol problem is simple, although executing it isn't: Alcohol use can be curbed if the price of it is raised. "Moving people requires a price," the Times commentator Eduardo Porter has written. One of the best ways to reduce consumption of something is to make it more costly. The problem with this approach is that it takes a great deal of political will to increase taxes on beer, a move about as popular as levying a tariff on laughter.

Kenya is an African country in which votes are counted, and members of parliament are reluctant to make alcohol or some of the ingredients used to make unlicensed libations prohibitively expensive. The Kenyan government did marginally raise taxes on alcohol in recent years, but the move was mostly symbolic and hooch is still too affordable.

Public-health problem with great costs

Alcohol abuse is a mammoth public-health problem in Kenya, and the government needs to make drinking more economically painful. While it remains possible that Kenyan households would spend the same proportion of income on alcohol if prices were raised, it isn't likely. When people drink more, they tend to spend more. And when people drink less, they spend less.

But what if raising the cost of alcohol in Kenya leads some men to simply spend more of their incomes on it? This isn't likely either, as studies show that higher prices for alcohol reduce consumption, with beneficial effects. After Alaska raised its alcohol tax in the 1980s, alcohol-related deaths dropped by almost 30 percent.

While backpacking across Ireland after college, I noted that Guinness cost more there than it did across the Atlantic. Ireland steeply raised taxes on alcohol years ago, and the country has some of the highest booze taxes in the European Union, which has helped reduce overconsumption in that country. The Irish have a reputation for revelry, but they consume far less alcohol than Ukrainians, for example, in part because of alcohol's high cost.

Of course, an unpleasant effect of raising the price of alcohol is that more people may make and drink backwoods concoctions, which can be deadly. In June, the Kenyan newspaper The Nation reported that at least 10 men died in a rural village after drinking a local spirit called Miti ni Dawa. But even the fermenting of local beverages can be reduced if taxes are raised on crops such as hops and rye. (The poor can make bread without these ingredients.)

The Kenyan government does on some level recognize alcohol as a problem, and in 2010 it passed legislation prohibiting bars from selling alcohol before 5 p.m. on weekdays. A more effective measure, though, would be making Kenyan men pay more for their libations when they shuffle into pubs after quitting time.

Justin D. Martin is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him onTwitter: @Justin_D_Martin.

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