The Sunday Mail
THE numbers get blurry and frantic with each bottle top that hits the ground.
Over time it becomes a sustained lifestyle, especially among the working class who use their demanding vocations to rationalise the habit.
Daily alcohol drinking or weekend binge drinking is brewing what could be Zimbabwe’s next public health headache, unless mitigation strategies are formulated with urgency.
The manner in which young people are drinking to excess in Zimbabwe has become a concern even for global health authorities.
A recent report titled “Mental health Among Young people in the African Region” by the World Health Organisation raises a concerning statistic.
At 70,7 percent among males and 55,5 percent among females, Zimbabwe has the highest number of 15 to 19-year-olds who engage in episodic drinking.
Heavy episodic drinking is described by the World Health Organisation as the proportion of adult drinkers (15+ years) who have had at least 60 grammes or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in 30 days.
Sixty grammes of pure alcohol can be found in six beer pints and consuming those in one sitting is considered dangerous drinking.
A glass of wine is said to have the same concentration of pure alcohol, as a pint of beer.
The recommended amount of alcohol a person should consume per day is two beer pints or two tots of whiskey.
However, for Zimbabwe, the figure is being breached by more than 55 percent of its youths between the age of 15 and 19.
This class carries youths who are in high school and early stages of university.
This age group is yet to become economically active, indicating that the level of alcohol abuse could be higher among older citizens who have consistent sources of income.
A recent academic paper by Eliott Nkoma focusing on alcohol use by first year university students, states that in Zimbabwe young people admit to starting alcohol and substance abuse, as young as 12.
This means that some get to the legal age of consumption (18), with six years of drinking under their belts.
Speaking to The Sunday Mail, World Health Organisation Regional Advisor for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Dr Florence Kamayonza explained how easy it is to become excessive drinkers unknowingly.
“Two standard drinks per day are OK, but drinking six or more in one sitting is very harmful. So those who do not drink the whole month, or the whole week, but binge drink on the weekend or on pay day, also do harm to themselves,” said Dr Kamayonza.
She warned that if the issue of heavy drinking is left unchecked, it could result in challenges for the country such as mental health and alcohol use disorder.
Authorities were urged to address the issue, which is fast forming into a convulsing keg, which will eventually explode.
“Harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions, including NCDs, mental and neurological disorders, and injuries. The latest causal relationships have been established between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as HIV/AIDS,” said Dr Kamayonza.
Fears are, Africa (including Zimbabwe) already has a heavy burden of communicable diseases and young people who are engaging in heavy drinking will cause a future spike in non-communicable diseases.
Non communicable diseases cannot be directly passed from one person to another, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and chronic lung disease, among others.
Authorities are aware of the looming danger and they have started putting together measures to address the concern.
Addressing a virtual audience at the recent launch of the Special Initiative for Mental Health, Minister of Health and Child Care, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga said substance and alcohol abuse reduce the standard of life among the youth.
“A large proportion of people continue to abuse alcohol, and other substances such as crystal meth and cocaine. As a result, more interventions are needed to reduce substance abuse,” said Vice President Chiwenga.
In April this year, a National Drug Master plan was set in motion, meant to reduce reliance and abuse of substances.
The document says; “alcohol and substance use related problems are one of the top three problems seen in mental health services in all 10 provinces.”
Among solutions being pursued by Government, there is awareness starting within the school environment at primary school level.
There is going to be more enforcement of laws that govern the sale and consumption of alcohol, to ensure only designated players remain in existence.
Anti-alcohol lobbyists believe there are blind spots that policy makers need to take into account as they formulate mitigation.
Co-ordinator of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAP), in Zimbabwe, Mr Tungamirai Zimondi, said there is need for an assessment of all facets of the socio-economic space to weed out possible push factors.
“Young people are surrounded by aggressive advertising of alcohol. Alcohol is advertised as an aspirational lifestyle and its consumption promoted as normal and glamorous. Alcohol is easily available and sold in our communities also very cheap, especially beer, no one asks for IDs at points of sale, there is lack of enforcement of existing laws,” said Mr Zimondi.
He urged a collaborative regional response, as countries in the whole SADC region face a similar predicament.
“There is a deliberate attempt by the global alcohol industry to expand into Africa since there are weak regulations as compared to the Western world and the young population is attractive to them for their long term profit goals,” he added.
The World Health Organisation has proposed what is known as the “safer approach” to reduce the burden of alcohol abuse in the world.
The approach seeks to strengthen restrictions on alcohol availability, advance counter measures to drinking, enhance access to treatment, restrict alcohol promotions and increase prices.
For many countries in Africa, these measures are easier said than done as alcohol companies hold critical sway in economies.
The South African government has been in instances, restricting alcohol sale during the pandemic and the backlash has shown the complications associated with dealing with the sector with a heavy hand.
Governments will have to be strategic in their approach because with each passing day, the situation is getting dire.
Every 10 seconds in the world, a person dies from an alcohol related cause, according to online statistics.
Zimbabwe, sadly, makes part of those statistics.
The manner in which people are sneaking into shebeens and bars, breaking the law to get a daily dose of mood altering refreshments points to a pandemic in bottled form.