On a bitterly cold Friday evening, a lively group of urban youths dance frenziedly to loud South African kwaito music at a local house party in Harare’s Waterfalls suburb.
Alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs such as mbanje flow freely among the group — a clear sign that no expense was spared in preparing the merrymaking.
As the intense partying continues unabated, couples among the group take turns to sneak into secluded rooms for privacy.
It’s a scene constantly repeated across the country, especially in urban communities.
However, closer inspection of the group shows that most of the youths are barely above 18 years old — the legal drinking age.
A few of them, who are still in high school, lie wasted on the ground in pools of vomit after taking one too many.
But this does not deter the rest, who continue with their partying, supposedly unconscious of the dire state their peers on the ground are in.
“That is the only way he will learn how to hold his alcohol. He should learn that this is a grown man’s game,” says one of the young imbibers as he pours a bucket of cold water on his peer who is lying prostrate.
Today, Zimbabwean society is grappling with the menace of under-age drinking, smoking and drug abuse.
An ever-increasing number of school-going children are turning to alcohol and smoking in their unending pursuit of youthful nocturnal pleasure.
Alcohol and cigarettes have become widely accessible in shops, street corners and shebeens, raising concern from health experts that such a free-for-all puts the young people’s health at risk.
Experts have identified alcohol abuse as the common thread that runs through violent crime, fatal road accidents, and anti-social behaviour.
Youngsters have benefited from the lapse in the enforcement of regulations controlling access to alcohol by young people.
School holiday months have become notorious for the number of “bashes”, reggae cup clashes, MC contests and house parties where alcohol flows freely.
Already, the streets of Harare have been defaced by posters advertising the traditional August carnivals which coincide with the ongoing Harare Agricultural Show.
Over the years, such carnivals have not restricted under-age children from buying alcohol.
School-going children take advantage of such lack of regulation to engage in drinking and smoking.
Despite the country having promulgated laws for child prtotection and liquor licensing, which prohibit the passing on of alcohol or harmful substances to children, businesspeople are flouting the laws with a reckless disregard.
Retailers are selling alcohol and cigarettes to under-age children in flagrant contravention of the laws.
Alcohol retailers who spoke to The Sunday Mail In-Depth said they are aware of laws prohibiting the sale of such harmful substances to children.
“You need to understand that we are in business to make money and we have no time to ask our customers to produce their identification so that we can verify their age before we sell our products to them,” said a manager at a bottle store in Glen View who preferred not to be named.
“We will let the police do the law enforcement while we stick to our mandate, which is to sell as much volumes as possible and make a profit.
“The best we can do is stick posters and educate our customers about the dangers of alcohol.”
Last year, there was a public outcry after Government proposed the National Alcohol Policy which sought, among other things, to prohibit the sale of alcohol after 7pm and during weekends.
The regulations also proposed to tighten existing laws that dealt with selling alcohol to children while restricting the sale of alcohol to pregnant women.
Zimbabweans have over the years developed a beer-drinking culture following the easing of economic challenges. Tragically, this culture seems to have trickled down to the young as well.
The last Global Status Report on Alcohol (2004) ranked Zimbabwe at number 12 on the list of top beer-drinking nations in Africa with per capita consumption of alcohol pegged at 5,08 litres per year against an continental average 4 litres.
Experts contend that today Zimbabwe has already broken into the top ten.
At one time alcohol and cigarettes were said to be the major contributors of taxes to the Government and today the beer industry continues to grow exponentially.
In 2011, leading beer producer Delta Beverages, one of the best performing companies on the local stock exchange, recorded a 50 percent jump in beer sales.
Delta also reported that Zimbabwe consumed 198,1 million hectolitres of lager, and 335,4 million hectolitres of opaque beer.
Of the lager, 43 percent was consumed in Harare alone.
Police spokesperson Chief Superintendent Andrew Phiri said there was no law that prohibited children from drinking beer.
He said when a minor is found consuming alcohol, they will not be arrested.
“There is no law that prohibits children from drinking alcohol,” he said.
“In fact, the Liquor Act prohibits selling of alcohol to minors and we as police we will arrest and try any persons found selling alcohol to children below the age of 18 years.
“Under the circumstances, however, the law has been very difficult to enforce due to circumstances such as manpower shortage.”
Alcoholism has been identified as a leading cause of birth defects in children born to parents who abused alcohol as youths.
Studies in South Africa have shown that violent crime committed by young people is usually a result of alcohol abuse.
Experts say after getting drunk or intoxicated with drugs young people usually tend to perform sexually risky behaviour, which at times results in unwanted pregnancies, rape or sexually transmitted infections.
Health experts have also identified alcohol-based lifestyles as possible causes of non-communicable diseases in future such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, liver cirrhosis and dental caries.
They noted that the country will struggle to deal with the social cost of alcohol-related problems which include high cost of treatment, prevention, research, law enforcement and lost productivity.
Mr Caleb Mutandwa, programmes director at Justice for Children Trust, blamed parents for turning a blind eye on the simmering problem.
“These days beer is sold everywhere, a child doesn’t necessarily have to get into a bar or a club to get alcohol,” he said.
“Teenage girls have become the highlight at most night clubs these days. Old men enjoy to see them dance half-naked and drunk, so there is no one stopping them.
“The Liquor Act prohibits the selling of any alcoholic product to children below the age of 18 years under any circumstances. It also entails that no child under the age of 18 years is allowed into a bar or night club
“It is not just the duty of the police to enforce this law on their own, but the community should actively take part in upholding this law to curb the problem of alcohol consumption in children below the age of 18 years.”
Most African countries have laws that prohibit underage drinking, but these are poorly enforced or often completely ignored.
In Kenya, authorities are currently drafting a law that will raise the legal drinking age to 21 from 18 years, following a 2010 law that banned alcohol sales in grocery stores and in bars before 5 pm.
South Africa is crafting a new law to restrict alcohol advertising while also raising the minimum drinking age to 21 from 18 years.
Earlier this year, Zambia banned the manufacture and sale of spirits in relatively cheap small plastic sachets, which it blamed for the rise in alcohol abuse among young people.