BY UNDERCOVER REPORTER
The words: Alcohol is strictly not for sale to persons under 18, are inscribed on all the legal alcoholic products in the country. However, this has not done much to stop minors from consuming alcohol.
In neighbouring Kenya, the Government has taken the battle against this vice beyond just words. Recently, the law on alcohol was amended to The Alcoholic Drinks Control Amendment Bill 2012. With this Bill came changes that saw bars close at 11:00pm and persons under 18 years of age prevented from any attraction to the consumption of alcohol, among others.
In the US, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 21. Persons entering any places that sell alcohol are required to have identification.
Prior to Christmas Day last year, I decided to move from bar to bar, observing which ones sold alcohol to minors in Kampala. I chatted up barmen, telling them of my supposed love for the way teenagers dance, with the intention of finding out if their bars attracted minors.
I eventually narrowed my search to two bars, which I would visit over the weekend. On a Saturday evening, at about 9:00pm, with a soda in hand, I sat in a corner of one of the bars on Buganda Road. However, two hours and three sodas later, I got the impression that I had either gone to the bar too early or the barman had lied about the teenagers’ presence there. I was contemplating leaving the bar when six boys walked in.
Dressed in skinny jeans, the boys headed straight to the dancefloor and started dancing like they had just walked out of a Jamaican video. After the first song, one boy broke off from the group and went towards the counter. I guessed he was going to get drinks. I quickly rushed to the counter and pretended to be buying myself a drink.
This boy, who was no more than 16 years old, bought six beers without a hustle. I wondered how any adult could even let a child into a bar. I got out and lingered at the entrance for about 15 minutes until I received strange glances from the security personnel. I pretended to be directing someone on phone and walked down the stairs to the road only to see four young girls hopping off two boda bodas. They wore shorts that could pass for underwear. It finally hit me that these had to be what the DJ had been calling “pum-pum shorts” all night!
I overheard one of the girls complaining about the bright light at the entrance. “My mother is attending overnight prayers near here,” one of them lamented as they walked to the bar. The barman poured Uganda Waragi into tot glasses and gave three of the four girls. Each guzzled the waragi within no time. The fourth girl ordered a soda. It was obvious that this was her first time out. About an hour later, she was dancing with a beer in hand in a vulgar manner amid cheers from her friends.
At about 1:00am, I arrived at another bar on Acacia Avenue. Two boys of about 14 or 16 were being checked in, or should I say, ushered in? I was welcomed by a nauseating smell. As I walked through the compound, all I saw were young drunk couples cuddling on the benches.
I got into the bar only to find a tiny dance-floor filled with youngsters and dreadlocked men dancing like they had been hypnotised. A young girl with a long wig that swallowed her tiny face caught my eye. She was smoking a tube-like thing, which I later realised was the cause of the stinging smell. I could not stand the smell of the shisha anymore, so I left the place.
On my way home, I saw another gang of youngsters staggering to Centenary Park at about 2:00am. I had heard before that many minors bought alcohol cheaply from supermarkets and went to the bars when they were already drunk.
On January 8, I set out with my children to find out if they could buy alcohol from supermarkets. With my 12-year-old boy in P.6 and 15-year-old girl in S.3, I visited various supermarkets.
Our first stop was Nakumatt Supermarket on Yusuf Lule Road. I gave each of the youngsters sh30,000 to buy alcohol before we entered the supermarket. I, on the other hand, pretended to shop while observing them.
The girl walked in, picked a Nile Gold beer and Bell Lager. However, before the teller took the money, she asked who the alcohol was for. The girl said it was for her parents. And just like that, she was let through. When the boy approached the counter with a Smirnoff can, he was denied the alcohol on grounds of being under age.
Next was Uchumi Supermarket at Garden City. The girl got a Smirnoff and Uganda Waragi and took the drinks to the counter. No one stopped her. When the boy went to the counter with a Uganda Waragi, the teller at the counter teased him in Luganda, asking “Ogenda ku gunywa ssebo?” (Are you going to drink it, sir?) The boy replied in the affirmative. They both laughed and the boy walked away with the alcohol.
Shoprite and Game stores at Lugogo were next. Both malls did not bat an eyelid when the minors walked out with bottles of 750ml spirits. By the time we got to Capital Shoppers in Nakawa, buying the alcohol was a walk-over. The teenagers walked away with a bottle of V&A and Royal Gin.
In Belgium, the only way these minors would have bought alcohol was if they had an adult accompanying them. If these supermarkets were in our neighbouring Kenya, they would have risked losing their trading licence.
Do supermarkets have underage drinking policies?
Consiano Ngabirano, the general manager of Capital Shoppers, says they have shelved the policies. He argues that sometimes parents stay in the car and send the children to buy alcohol.
The stores manager of Game, Andy Shaw, says the policies exist, but explained that the tellers might not have been on their guard that day. Shoprite’s communication manager,
Sarita Van Wyk, says the establishment does not condone the sale of alcohol or tobacco to minors. The manager of Uchumi, Jeff Nchaga, and branch manager of Uchumi, Lugogo, David Migo, both apologised and promised to check underage drinking.
However, the Kampala metropolitan Police spokesperson, Ibin Ssenkumbi, says there is no law against underage drinking in Uganda. The supermarket managers argued that unless the policy was strengthened, it did not make business sense for them to stop selling alcohol to the minors while the competition continued to soar.
Effects of underage drinking
The effects of consuming alcohol on a minor cannot be compared to those on a fully-grown adult, doctors say. Dr. Isabella Epieu, a doctor at Mulago Hospital, says alcohol abuse can harm the developing brain of a teenager.
“The brain continues to develop from birth through the adolescent years and into the mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex, which is used for planning and decisionmaking, does not completely mature until after teenage,” she explains.
Epieu adds that alcohol abuse can harm a teenager’s ability to reason and make sound decisions. Dr. Joyce Nalugya, also a doctor at Mulago Hospital concurs with Epieu, saying the inability to make sound decisions, makes it easy for one to get involved in risky behaviour, such as illicit sex.
“Teenagers who are under the influence of alcohol are at high risk of contracting HIV, as they cannot make sound decisions on issues,” she adds. According to the 2003 American
National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report, teenagers are vulnerable to alcohol-induced brain damage, which retards their growth.
Alcohol abuse also affects teenagers’ performance at school. “Children who drink are usually dull, absent-minded and rebellious,” says Margaret Asekenye, the headmistress of Ngora Girls’ School in Ngora district. She says teenagers who abuse alcohol tend to go to great lengths to satisfy their craving. “They lie to get the money to buy the alcohol. They can also steal other people’s property and escape from school to go and satisfy their urge to drink,” Asekenye explains.
Stella Najja, a social worker with Child Fund, a non-governmental organisation, attributes the increasing teenage pregnancies to alcohol abuse.
How can we curb underage drinking?
Onapito Ekomoloit, Nile Breweries Alcohol is not bad. The bad thing, however, is the abuse of alcohol under which underage drinking falls. Parents need to be sensitised about how their own drinking influences their children.
Pastor Martin Sempa
A certain percentage of the tax collected from these alcohol brewing companies needs to go towards sensitisation of the public on the vice. Also, billboards advertising these products need to be pulled down because these children are at an impressionable age.
Sam Otada Amooti, MP Kiryandongo
The biggest problem we have is the lack of national identification cards. Even if we draft a law against the vice, the child buying the alcohol can claim to be of an older age.
Dr. Eric Adriko, chancellor,
Kyambogo University We need to look at how other countries have managed this. In Kenya for example, a child cannot access the alcohol section of the supermarket because it is a law.