Two years ago, Diageo, one of the World’s leading brewer identified Africa and in particular Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania as among their business most promising markets.In recent months, different brewers have put out a flurry of media adverts, each staking a claim to being the cheapest place to buy alcohol. Some have declared war on liquor prices and those being targeted have fired back a response.For the African consumer, this all sounds like great news, an alcohol price war in the lead up to Christmas of 2016. But for public health and safety, it’s worth thinking about the real cost of discounted drinks.Recent estimates put the social cost of alcohol in Africa at around $50 billion a year. Approximately half of these costs come from harms experienced by people other than the drinker.Alcohol contributes to a vast array of problems including cancer and liver disease, assaults, car accidents and other injuries, family dysfunction, neighbourhood disturbance and fear.Recent work undertaken in Kenya demonstrates that problems from alcohol are increasing rapidly. Ambulance attendances, hospital admissions and assault rates have all increased by more than 80% in the last five years. And, crucially, a key driver of rates of alcohol problems is price.Studies from around the world have shown that rates of alcohol harms are affected by the cost of alcohol. Heavy drinkers and young people are particularly responsive to price changes. A recent meta-analysis highlighted the links between price and a wide range of harms, including hospitalisations and deaths, traffic accidents, violence and other crime and risky sexual behaviour.It seems that there’s no such thing as a cheap drink.In spite of this evidence, leading brewers have spent the last few months in a race to the bottom on alcohol prices.
In August, several companies were only stopped from selling beer at below-cost price by pressure from manufacturers that was mainly targeted at youths.In September, Ugandan companies engaged in a price-war on pre-mixed spirits, selling a variety of brands at below wholesale prices.Now, with schools closing next month, the Christmas party season and New Year coming up, a peak time for alcohol-related harm, Africans will continue to see retailers advertising cut-price alcohol. This includes some popular wines being sold for less than $0.20 per standard drink.Retailers are well aware of the problems associated with cheap alcohol but they hardly care.Companies won’t offer these discounts in the rural areas as there are considerable problems with alcohol in these areas and this is a promising acknowledgement by the company that cheap alcohol will not help reduce them.But alcohol is not merely an rural poor problem. The most recent Africa survey data estimates that one in five Africans drink at levels that put them at risk of long-term harm from alcohol. Nearly one in two regularly drink at levels that put them at risk of injury.Of course, beer sellers are merely engaging in standard business practices. The $50 billion alcohol market in Africa is the focus of increasing competition, and there are retailers who are already dominating that market.Despite the rhetoric of responsibility and community-mindedness, the companies are focussed on maximising their profits from poor Africans. That’s why it’s necessary for governments to deal with the issue of alcohol price.A smarter approach to alcohol taxation has been recommended for both economic and public health reasons by recent stakeholders’ reviews. This measure has also been shown to be the most cost-effective intervention available to reduce alcohol-related harm in countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.Thanks to the evidence-based policy suggestions, African countries need to impose a minimum price per standard drink for alcohol, cutting down the harm associated with discounting practices, such as those currently being undertaken by retailers.