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Swaziland addresses heavy-drinking reputation

afrol News / IRIN, 27 March - Recognising excessive alcohol consumption as an economic and social problem in addition to gaining the Kingdom a poor regional reputation, the government of Swaziland has decided to regulate the distribution of drinks containing alcohol. Until now there has not even been an age restriction on drinking.

A draft National Liquor Policy prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors, discourages alcohol consumption in the workplace, and calls for a public education policy focusing on the damage caused by drunkenness. Swaziland's first attempt to check alcohol consumption is likely to come into effect in 2008.

The policy underlines the need for action against drunkenness associated with violence against women and children, a rising number of road accidents, unemployment, and accelerating the spread of HIV/AIDS. Two-thirds of the country's roughly 1 million people live on US$ 2 or less a day, and the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS has reached 34.2 percent among those aged 15 to 49, the highest in the world.

Excessive drinking is also associated with ailments such as liver cirrhosis (damage to liver cells), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), various cancers, including those of the liver, mouth, throat, larynx (the voice box) and oesophagus, high blood pressure and psychological disorders.

"This legislation is long overdue. In over half of cases involving spousal abuse, child abuse and incest we find alcohol is involved," said Gladys Ndwandwe, a counsellor with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse.

Swaziland Positive Living, a support group founded by HIV-positive women, is one of several AIDS organisations advocating awareness of the link between excessive alcohol consumption and HIV/AIDS.

"How many of our members were infected when they or their partners were too inebriated to remember to use a condom? Or when a drunken husband or partner forced himself on a wife or a girlfriend?" asked Swaziland Positive Living director Sempiwe Hlope.

"Also of concern is the rate of alcohol involvement in fatalities from pedestrian collisions," the National Liquor Policy said. The Royal Swaziland Police Force has estimated that on Saturdays and Sundays, one out of seven drivers is drunk.

The policy calls for a public awareness campaign to deter people from driving under the influence of alcohol, and to counter pedestrian drunkenness. Some church groups have called for a national prohibition of alcohol, but the liquor policy would not go that far.

"It is not realistic or desirable to advocate for total abstinence from drinking for the whole population; a more sensible and sustainable approach is to cultivate those drinking patterns that embrace a harm-minimisation approach," the policy document stated.

Swaziland has always been known as a hard-drinking place. Colonial-era laws prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages to "natives" were of little concern to Swazis, who preferred indigenous drinks that are still widely popular today: "tjwala", liquor brewed from sorghum, and "maganu", a sweet liquor brewed from the fruit of the Marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) a large deciduous member of the mango family that grows wild in the country.

The annual availability of the Marula fruit, from February to April, is cause for local celebrations, which are showcased as cultural events. The police have often had to issue strict warnings against the sale and consumption of maganu during the season, when traffic accidents, drunken brawls and work absenteeism rise to alarming levels.

Some newspapers, citing stories of drunken revelries and discord that characterise "maganu season", have criticised what has been described as the glorification of an alcoholic beverage at these festivals.

According to the government, the new National Liquor Policy seeks to introduce an element of moderation in alcohol consumption, accompanied by media campaigns to counter the attitude that drunkenness is socially acceptable by citing the damage that overindulgence has caused to people's health and lives.

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