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Underage drinking: Protecting Nigeria’s future

Youths, particularly the underage occupies a significant percentage of Nigeria’s population and so requires that stakeholders contribute their own quarter towards helping them find direction in their growth and development. Modestus Anaesoronye looks at a recent campaign by Guinness Nigeria plc in collaboration with some players in the value chain, to discourage underage drinking.

Recent statistics show that Nigeria’s under-18 population is well within the region of 80 million. The import of this figure is that about half of Nigeria’s total population is below the age of 18. This huge number represents a formidable bulge of untapped potential and a gold mine of opportunities, which well harnessed would guarantee the nation’s economic sustainability. Surely this special group deserves all the help it can get from all quarters – government, corporate organizations as well as non-governmental bodies to ensure that Nigeria’s posterity is preserved. Part of this help would be to ensure these young minds do not engage in underage drinking.

Underage drinking occurs when young people consume alcoholic beverages before the legally permissible age. In Nigeria, the legal drinking age is 18. From available research, there seems to be a consensus that many young people between the ages of 10 and 17 are prone to consuming alcohol as well as engaging in other forms of substance abuse. The impact of alcohol consumption during this phase of life is heightened by the fact that for many, this stage is a time of physical maturation and continuing development of the brain. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that suggests that youth’s involvement in irresponsible drinking is higher during adolescence than at other times in life. So how big a problem is underage drinking? Various studies by the World Health Organization and other agencies have shown that underage drinking is a serious public health problem across the world.

The conditions that have given rise to underage drinking are social, cultural and environmental in nature. For some, the family, which is the smallest unit of social interaction, represents the point of initiation into the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Sadly, some parents think that allowing their children to drink alcohol under their watch is a practical way to introduce them to responsible drinking. Some other families allow these young minds to serve alcoholic drinks to guests when they host social events in their homes. It is common knowledge that in some parts of Nigeria, for instance, parents put drops of alcohol in the mouths of their infants soon after birth. The claim is that alcohol makes the infant stronger.

The effects of underage drinking are well documented. Underage drinking is a complex challenge that has far-reaching impact on the society, on the immediate community, within the family and of course, on the life trajectory of the youth and peers involved as well as the health challenges that might occur as a result of premature and excessive exposure to alcohol.

On a physiological level, the potential harm to brain development is one of the greatest concerns of underage drinking. Both animal and human studies have shown that heavy drinking can cause cognitive deficits, which further impair decision-making and problem-solving processes.  Evidence further reveals that children who start to drink by age 13 are more likely to go on to have worse grades, to skip school and, in the worst case scenario, to be excluded from school. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, underage drinking among minors has dire implications in terms of its wide range of costly social consequences, which include fatal and non-fatal accidents, inter-personal violence, risky sexual behaviour, and alcohol poisoning, amongst others. A trip to many local transport parks and garages in most Nigerian cities provides evidence of the damage done by underage drinking.

Addressing the problem of underage drinking in its complexity will require a multiplicity of tools. This is because there is no one-size-fits all solution to curbing it. However, one way around this would be to identify smart and quick win strategies that are targeted and enforceable and can also create positive behavioral lifestyle changes.

It was therefore music to many ears when news filtered through that Guinness Nigeria Plc is partnering with Addide Stores, Just Rite Superstores, SPARArtee Group and Grocery Bazaar Ltd with their expansive retail footprints on curbing access to alcohol by underage people. Known as Age Verification Programme, this initiative places a demand on the retailers to ensure that alcohol isn’t sold to young people below the legal age of purchase. In essence, you must provide a valid identification to show that you are above 18 to purchase any alcoholic drink in these stores. This initiative will hopefully help to keep the legal age limit top of mind for the purchaser and the distributor as well as discourage adults from sending minors to buy alcohol for them. It is also a demonstration of the commitment of Guinness to encourage responsible drinking among the wider public and also ensure that its products are only consumed by people who are legally permitted to, even without the coercive influence of statutory regulations and in the face of stiff market competition.

According to Sesan Sobowale, Corporate Relations Director, Guinness Nigeria, “The Age Verification Program is to control the sale of alcohol to minors or underage persons, that is, persons under 18 years of age. Alcohol is strictly for adults and as we say in our company, children and alcohol do not mix”.

Sobowale adds: “We recognise that our efforts alone will not be sufficient to achieve success. We have started taking the campaign to retail outlets (bars) where alcohol is consumed and we are looking at expanding our reach in the near future through the involvement of more partners at off-trade and at point-of-consumption outlets.  By working together, we can accomplish greater scale and impact.”

However, the challenge of underage drinking is far from being over as there are a few barriers in the way of such meaningful programmes. The unavailability of an accessible ID database in the country is one barrier. This is in spite of a plethora of data gathering efforts by organizations such as the National Identity Management Commission, Independent National Electoral Commission, Federal Road Safety Commission, Central Bank of Nigeria among several others. So if a minor walks into a store and presents a fake ID to retailers, do we have a system that will detect such a fraudulent act? Or another minor is pulled over by traffic officials for driving under influence of any substance, is there a data bank that helps to provide information on whether he or she is a first time offender?

Another challenge is in the area of research. In a 2014 study released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan, which used data from more than 41,000 students from 377 public and private schools throughout the U.S, it revealed that underage drinking is on the long term decline among 8th, 10th and 12th graders. Sadly in Nigeria, there is a paucity of data in the public domain to track how well we are faring in the fight against underage drinking.

The responsibility for curbing underage drinking is everyone’s business. In the acceptance of this responsibility, corporate organizations involved in the production or marketing of alcoholic beverages must strive to create programs and communication materials that help educate everyone about making the right decisions about drinking, with a particular focus on helping parents educate their children about the dangers of underage drinking.

The integral role and important influence of family and peers in the fight against underage drinking cannot be over emphasized.  This is because as young people gain independence and freedom from their parents, most learned social behaviors are gotten from both family and peers. Seeing that education and communication starts at home, parents must model responsible drinking behavior while counseling their kids on the dangers associated with alcohol use.

It has been noted by several scholars, that communities where the enforcement of the appropriate legal age for purchase or consumption of alcoholic beverages is in existence, have experienced a sharp drop in underage drinking related problems. In this wise, stakeholders must craft mechanisms to have identification documents easily checked at points of sale to help off-premise retailers stop sales to minors.

There is hope that as the Guinness Age verification programme gains traction as well as the replication of similar initiatives by other stakeholders, Nigeria too will witness a sharp decline in underage drinking.   As mentioned earlier in this piece, there is a lot at stake, Nigeria’s future; we must all strike the right chords to ensure that cases of underage drinking are reduced to the barest minimum.

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