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Kenyans can't afford the high cost of cheap booze

Kenyan men spend more on alcohol than on education for their children. As a deterrent to combat the high social and economic costs of this public-health problem, Kenya should raise its tax on alcohol.

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In rural Kenyan villages, it is not uncommon to see more pubs than schools or medical clinics. Dusty, underfed children sometimes stand barefoot outside, while their fathers sit behind a mud wall making pints of lager disappear.

"[T]he [world's] poorest families spend about 20 percent of incomes – 10 times as much as on education – on a combination of alcohol, tobacco, prostitution, sugary drinks and candy, and extravagant festivals," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in 2010. "And evidence is very strong ... that this is largely because the purse strings are controlled by men."

Kenya is one of these places.

A 2004 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 20 percent of Kenyan males drink five or more days a week, while only 2 percent of women drink as often. Kenya is far too poor to consume this much alcohol.

A half-liter of Kenyan beer, the most popular beverage according to the WHO, ranges from about a dollar for a popular national brand to a few pennies for an unlicensed lager.

A partial solution to Kenya's alcohol problem is simple, although executing it isn't: Alcohol use can be curbed if the price of it is raised. "Moving people requires a price," the Times commentator Eduardo Porter has written. One of the best ways to reduce consumption of something is to make it more costly. The problem with this approach is that it takes a great deal of political will to increase taxes on beer, a move about as popular as levying a tariff on laughter.

Kenya is an African country in which votes are counted, and members of parliament are reluctant to make alcohol or some of the ingredients used to make unlicensed libations prohibitively expensive. The Kenyan government did marginally raise taxes on alcohol in recent years, but the move was mostly symbolic and hooch is still too affordable.


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