By Sam Wakhakha The primary healthcare state minister, Margaret Muhanga, wants bars in Uganda to only open after 5:00pm if the country is to reduce the abuse of alcohol that is fast spinning out of control. “We need to close every bar until 5:00pm or 6:00pm. In the village, people start drinking as early as 7:00am,” Muhanga said. She explained that, “if those bars were to remain closed at that time, people would not be drinking as much as they do. You find someone saying they are drinking because they don’t know what to do yet have a lot of fertile lands on which they could be growing crops to earn money.” Muhanga made the call while launching the Uganda Alcohol report for 2022 at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala on Wednesday. The report was compiled by the Uganda Alcohol Policy Alliance, a non-government organization. Citing the report that showed that Uganda was the leading consumer of alcohol in Africa, Muhanga called for a restriction on the availability of alcohol, especially to the young people whom she said needed to be protected for the sake of securing Uganda’s future. “In 2017, I was in the US and one of the things I loved about it was that you cannot just walk into a shop and buy alcohol. I went to a shop to buy wine for my guests and the shop attendant asked for my ID. I asked him, ‘ do I look like I am below the age of 18?’ The man refused until I went and brought my passport. We should be doing the same to control the availability of alcohol,” Muhanga said. She said the best way for Uganda to reduce high alcohol consumption would be to tackle underage drinking through restricted advertising, more taxes on alcohol, and strict laws on the selling and buying of alcohol. “Alcohol and drug abuse is a very big problem in this country. I have seen parents who are struggling with very brilliant children. I have a friend whose son is very brilliant, but has gone to waste because of alcohol and drug abuse,” the minister said. According to the report, Uganda tops Africa in pure alcohol consumption at 9.4 liters per person. The consumption per person in Africa is 6.3 liters, while globally, it is 6.4 liters. It was against this backdrop that mental health professionals and activists called for strict regulation of the industry to stop the high levels of alcoholism in Uganda. Mwebaze Isharaza, the chairperson of the Uganda Addiction Prevention and Rehabilitation Association, called for the need to make the treatment of alcohol problems affordable for Ugandans. He said the people most affected by the harmful use of alcohol are poor and cannot afford rehabilitation services because they are expensive. “In the association, we are struggling because our treatment model as a country is not easily scalable. The people who can afford treatment are the few in the middle class. We have to challenge ourselves to find ways through which people can access treatment services,” he said. “The burden and effects of Alcohol use are felt not just by the individual, but the family and society at large. We need a multi-faceted approach to the problem,” Mwebaze added. The acting commissioner for mental health and substance abuse prevention at the ministry of health, Dr. Hasifah Lukwata, urged Ugandans to protect young people from emotional abuse, saying it was driving many into finding solace in alcohol at a very early age. According to the report, 53% of young people had used alcohol before the age of 18. The prevalence among university students was 31% while in secondary, 70% of the students reported having used alcohol. The report also showed that 46% of Ugandans below 14 years have tasted alcohol. Dr. Kenneth Kalani from the Ministry of Health said most young people were abusing alcohol and drugs as a form of self-treating emotional problems. “There are a lot of pressures we subject young people to. Single parenthood is on the rise and many parents burden children with their emotional problems and at the end of the day, children are forced to look to alcohol as their friend,” he said. Dr. Kalani proposed that the drinking age be increased from 18 to 21 years. “We need to increase the minimum age of drinking from 18 to 21 because, before 21, the brain is still developing,” he added. The World Health Organisation country representative.e, Dr. Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, called for increased taxation, regulation n of the market, and availability if Uganda is to reverse the high use of alcohol abuse. “36.3% of Ugandans above the age of 15 consume alcohol. What makes it worse is that heavy episodic drinking is way higher than in other countries. This is preventable,” he said. The WHO boss called for the implementation of strict laws on the sale of alcohol. “When children go to a bar in Uganda, nobody asks them how old they are before entering. The laws do to does not sell alcohol to people who are below the age of 18. WHO has several policy options. For example, heavy taxation reduces the consumption of alcohol,” Woldemariam said. The WHO boss said high alcohol consumption was one of the leading causes of non-communicable diseases that are expensive to treat by the public health system. “We make a lot of noise when a plane with 300 people crashes, but alcohol kills 300 people per year. You add tobacco which kills eight million and you have 11 million. We have two murderers killing about 11 million people per year,” Woldemariam added. Tororo Woman MP Sarah Opendi rallied Ugandans to support her Private Members Bill which is aimed at controlling the consumption of alcohol. “Something must be done. In the village, people drink from morning to evening. That is why I’m coming up with this Bill to control the sale of alcohol,” she said. Opendi recently introduced a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament, which seeks to among others regulate drinking hours. The head of the Uganda Alcohol Policy Alliance, Dr. David Kalema, called for more stringent legislation and by-laws on the consumption of alcohol. Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze came up with legislation on alcohol consumption, but we do not know where it disappeared. “We do not know what is making these Bills not progress. Only 14% of the districts in Uganda have ordinances on alcohol consumption,” he said. “46% of Ugandans below 14 years have tasted alcohol. Uganda has a high prevalence of heavy episode drinking, especially among young people,” he said. UGANDA WINS AWARD During the ceremony, the WHO handed over the plaque of the UN Inter-Agency Taskforce and WHO special program on primary healthcare award. The UN recognized Uganda’s Ministry of Health for its exemplary approach to progress on alcohol control through partnerships and multi-sectoral cooperation. STATISTICS According to the report, Ugandans consume 110.6 million liters of alcohol every year. The report showed that 52% (67.7 million liters) of the alcohol consumed was informal and valued at sh2 trillion. The report also showed that Karamoja, with 46% of the population drinking alcohol, leads other regions in alcohol consumption. The other regions are West Nile at 16%, Teso at 14%, Elgon at 13.8%, South Buganda at 13.2%, North Buganda at 13% and Acholi at 12%, Lango at 12%, Bunyoro at 11.7%, Kigezi 9.5%, Toro 9%, Kampala 8.8%, Ankole 8.1%, Bukedi 6.9% and Busoga 4%. The report showed that an average Ugandan loses five years in their lifetime due to alcohol-related mortalities or morbidities. It also revealed that 70.4% of people who drink alcohol want to reduce their consumption. The report further showed that alcohol contributes 33% to the national economy, but generates a lot of harm.