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Who is to blame for underage drinking?

In 2014, the Straight Talk Foundation carried out a baseline survey in four districts focusing on underage drinking.

The survey, carried out in the four districts of Adjumani, Soroti, Nwoya and Kitgum revealed that four per cent of parents interviewed consumed alcohol in their homes.

In Uganda today, it is illegal to sell alcohol to children and persons under the age of 18. However, it is common practice for parents to send their children to the local pub to buy them alcoholic beverages and bartenders and shopkeepers also sell the alcoholic beverages to the children without question.

Where then do you draw the line between a child that is buying alcohol for their parents and one that has moved on to purchasing it for themselves? Those on social media have been exposed to horrifying images of adults giving alcohol to their children and even to toddlers.

Further, the Straight Talk Foundation survey revealed that a good number of teachers in the mentioned areas teach while under the influence of alcohol. School-going children spend most of their time at school with peers and under the guardianship of their teachers.

As influential figures in society, what kind of example are these teachers setting for the learners if they are openly abusing alcohol?

Another study, done in March and April of 2014 in select slums around Kampala, by Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), found that 46 per cent of the youth aged between 12 and 18 take alcohol.

Among the adverse effects that this study unearthed was that alcohol consumption among the underage led to a rise in school dropouts, health problems and worse, in many cases, engaging in sexual behavior.

It is very easy to blame alcohol beverage companies for underage drinking or blame it on adolescence and unruly teenagers, but when you look back, the adults closest to these teenagers have played a huge part in shaping the perceptions of these children about alcohol and in initiating the children into alcohol consumption at an early age.

In more advanced economies, the age limit for alcohol is strictly adhered to with all bars and stores requiring identification (to ascertain age) before they serve customers suspected to be under the legal purchasing age.

Now, with national identity cards available in Uganda, it is imperative that an ID check is strictly observed, especially for consumers that look suspiciously underage.

We have seen self-regulation of alcoholic beverage companies like Uganda Breweries Limited in terms of not placing advertising content during family shows, not advertising on radio until late in the evening and actively advocating zero tolerance to underage drinking.

These need to work hand-in-hand with deliberate actions starting at home in the family unit and community level to reduce exposure of their children to alcohol .

So, while both government, from legislation and enforcement perspectives, and the alcohol companies have their responsibilities to play in terms of minimizing exposure and access of underage children to alcohol, parents, teachers and guardians play a bigger role in ensuring they are the first gatekeepers between their children and alcohol.

The author is the director of programs at Straight Talk Foundation Uganda.

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