While a dog might be a man’s best friend, beer, it seems, is also a bosom buddy, if the latest report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is anything to go by.
Of the 7 billion souls who inhabit the Earth, 2,3 billion are current drinkers.
In fact, alcohol is consumed by more than half the population in the Americas, Europe and the Western Pacific WHO regions.
Zimbabwe is no exception.
In both revelry and sombre occasions, locals almost always consider alcohol as a handy companion.
They happily glug away at wedding ceremonies or parties, pour alcohol as libation during traditional ceremonies and rites, and also pep up their grieving souls at funeral wakes.
And it shows through the numbers.
According to the Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, which was released by WHO on September 21, the country’s alcohol consumption stands at 4,8 litres of pure alcohol per 100 000 people, which translates to about 320 pints of beer or 16 bottles of whisky or vodka.
But locals are trumped by fellow imbibers in the region and beyond.
In South Africa and Botswana, consumption is 9,3 litres and 8,4 litres, respectively.
It is even higher in East Africa, where it was gauged at 9,4 litres and 9,5 litres in Tanzania and Uganda in that order.
Further, consumption is relatively higher in Nigeria at 13,4 litres.
However, for those who drink in Zimbabwe, most of them prefer beer to any other alcoholic beverage.
WHO established that beer accounted for 63 percent of alcohol consumed locally between 2015 and 2017.
Other brews such as masese (opaque beer), kachasu, makumbi and amaganu (Amarula fruit) stood at 24 percent.
Spirits were further down the ladder at 12 percent.
The uptake of wine – considered esoteric in this part of the world – stood at a mere 1 percent.
As the economy improves, so too does the beer drinkers’ thirst.
Delta Beverages – which is the second-biggest firm by market capitalisation ($2,6 billion as of last week) – recently reported that larger beer volumes rose by 56 percent in the first-quarter ended June 30, 2018, while sparkling beverages like soft drinks only grew by 23 percent.
Paying the price
But the love for alcohol comes at a grim and heavy price.
WHO claims that alcohol results in 158 000 deaths annually in Zimbabwe, and of these fatalities, 36 000 are deaths from liver cirrhosis, 109 000 are from alcohol-induced road traffic injuries and 13 500 deaths from cancers attributed to alcohol consumption.
As a result, local drinkers shed two and a half years off their life expectancy, which is currently at 61, according to the international public health agency.
Put simply, it means if you are a drinker, you are likely not going to live beyond 59 years.
Figures also show that 210 000 Zimbabweans are dependent on alcohol, while around 614 000 have alcohol use disorders that include psychosis and aggression.
In particular, heavy episodic drinking is practiced by 123 000 female drinkers and 735 000 male drinkers.
Policymakers around the world, however, continue to lobby governments to introduce policies designed to cut alcohol consumption.
“To reduce harmful use of alcohol, it is recommended governments increase excise taxes on alcoholic beverages, ban or comprehensively restrict exposure to alcohol advertising, and restricting the availability of alcohol via reduced hours of sale,” reads the report.
Government has been particularly brutal when it comes to “sin taxes”.
In the 2013 National Budget, excise duty on lager beer was increased to 45 percent from 40 percent effective December 12, 2012, only for the increase to be reviewed back to 40 percent on January 1, 2015.
During President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s visit to Delta Beverages’ plant on July 23 this year, the listed company’s chairperson Dr Canaan Dube urged Government to further downwardly review excise duty on their products.
The tax head remains one of the critical revenue streams for the national purse.
In April this year alone, of the $65 million generated by excise duty, 68,8 percent was from fuel, 15 percent from beer and 10 percent from airtime.
Although the taxman gets rich pickings from beer sales, it is understood that Government is currently working on a draft National Alcohol Policy that will provide strict guidelines on the sale of alcoholic beverages.
In essence, the policy proposes to bar the sale of alcohol during the week, regulate the number of hours to sell the products and provide guidelines on the consumption of alcohol during special events like parties and weddings on the basis of the venue at which they are held.
Motor vehicle drivers found with a blood alcohol concentration of above 0,08 per 100ml of blood face arrest while those found selling the product to pregnant women will also face arrest.
The policy also proposes that any alcohol advertisement should be done not less than 100 metres from a road intersection, school, clinic, hospital, church and old people’s homes.
WHO maintains that low-income countries need comprehensive alcohol policies as a way of contributing towards better healthcare systems, which are an integral part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Overall, high-income countries consume more alcohol, relative to low-income countries.
“There is need for stronger policies on reduction of alcohol consumption in low-income countries as their health systems are already of poorer standards. Thereby, alcohol-induced illnesses and ailments are more likely to lead to death in these parts of the world,” warns WHO in its latest report.