Recently Ghana’s Food and Drugs Board issued a fiat against advertisements of hard liquor and bitters. The FDB’s excuse was that manufacturers of alcohol have misconstrued market authorisation given them to mean running advertisements ad infinitum.
While we should task the FDB to explain why market authorisation should not include adverts, we need to question where it derives the authority to issue such edicts without recourse to the commercial, revenue and employment implications for the country. As I understand, the FDB is not questioning the contents or potency of alcoholic products they have certified to be sold, neither does the Ghana Standards Board have issues with the standards they have set for the manufacturers.
To be fair, the cacophony of the adverts isn’t the nuisance, but the suggestive claims of their powers. Some have said their bitters are substitutes for aphrodisiacs, when in reality over indulgence could promote the desire for sex, but then take away the performance.
The role of adverts is to draw people to a product and its usefulness, not its false contents and claims. However, in regulating an industry such as that of alcohol, care must be taken not to create an uncontrollable underground economy with hazardous consequences. Let’s not forget the numerous circumstances people’s insatiability for the bottle has led them to drink unwholesome alcohol with fatal results. There are already many distillers in Accra that are off the radar of the FDB. It is anyone’s guess what the situation is in other parts of the country where very low income levels are synonymous with boredom and booze.
The ban on advertisements means a legitimisation of the informal alcohol industry which already controls more than 50 per cent of the market. This industry does not advertise on radio and television, neither does it use billboards, nor say the contents of the drinks. Everyone close to it knows it exists.
Alcoholic advertisements are not necessarily targeting kids. Even if they did, it behoves us to find a better way of enforcing rules that make it a punishable offence to sell alcohol to the under aged. Parents and school authorities have a role to play here too. I never tasted any alcoholic drink until I was twenty, two years after acquiring the legal title of an adult. Even that, I am still a social drinker. It may have been my good parental upbringing and schooling that did the trick, and I agree not every one had that opportunity. However, it is not the role of a regulatory body such as the FDB to re-orient what happens in society.
Poverty is a factor in people taking to any bottle in the informal alcohol economy, but a good standard of living accompanies the blitz of the world, and moderation in alcohol consumption happens to be part of the blitz. Relatively well off people are aware of the consequences of over drinking, and even when they do over drink, they have the wherewithal to curb the consequences.
It seems to me a sensible demand for us to tackle the root causes of unwholesome and risky alcohol consumption which is poverty, rather than attack an industry whose contributions to employment generation, revenue for government and corporate social investments have been unsurpassed. Poignantly, the ban on alcoholic adverts has the unintended consequence of affecting sponsorships for what all Ghanaians cherish-soccer. Some of the leading alcoholic beverage manufacturers have made life-time commitments to supporting our national soccer teams, and the results have been positively immediate. Obviously, this shouldn’t leverage any favours from the FDB, but it is only fair that businesses are rewarded for what we collect from them. Besides the ban could affect other alcoholic beverages, and before we know it, we have given a blanket cheque to all regulators to ban what they regulate when they seem overwhelmed by their growth.
For uniformity and predictability of rules, the FDB, Customs and the Ghana Standards Board must align their operations. We must also call for a good self-regulatory body of all alcohol manufacturers to help the regulators come out with a good national alcohol policy. Such policy must maintain a balance between alcohol consumption and health implications, impact of local trade policies on the Industry, international trade treaties, national revenue and employment generation. Such a policy should also exact stakeholder commitments to setting standards for alcohol production, distribution, retail, and consumption. It should also encourage affordable alternatives to illicit alcohol and create a safe and responsible drinking culture in Ghana. In the mean time, the FDB should lift the ban on alcohol advertisements to save lives that are being lost to the illicit informal alcohol industry.
Franklin Cudjoe is Executive Director of IMANI, a Ghanaian think-tank dedicated to researching economic trends for the benefit of business, civil society and government. His email is email@example.com