By Gatonye Gathura
Most of the now popular high strength alcoholic drinks in Nairobi are dangerously spiked, says drugs and poisons experts from Kenya and Germany
The alcohol content in the cheap spirits and even chang’aa being consumed in Nairobi is way above the safe levels for human health.
Alcohol strength in most of the cheap spirits though legal is almost up to 60 per cent against the recommended 40 per cent alcohol by volume.
At the same time alcohol strength in most of the chang’aa is up to 86 per cent compared to the recommended 35-57 per cent alcohol content by volume.
This is despite the government campaign to rid the country of high strength licit spirits in 2015 banning more than 367 second generation alcoholic brands.
The exercise led by President Uhuru Kenyatta saw the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) suspended a 2011 specification limiting the alcohol content in chang’aa to 35 -57 per cent.
Recently a team from University of Nairobi and the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Agency of Germany found alcohol content in chang’aa being sold in Kibera to be as high as 85.8 per cent.
The team also collected and tested 11 samples of the cheap, but legal spirits (second generation) from Soweto and Laini Saba villages of Kibera slums.
Alcohol content in all the spirits was found to be way above what was declared on the labels running up to 60 per cent, 20 per cent over and above the considered safe limits.
Such drinks, the authors say are able to provide high amounts of ethanol in shorter drinking episodes and in smaller volumes thus being able to produce more pronounced intoxication effects.
“Drinks of such high alcoholic strength poses public health risks to the consumers,” says the study published on 17 October 2017 in journal foods.
The researchers say they found the high alcoholic strength attained in the chang’aa samples peculiar since the normal process of brewing the drink cannot yield such high contents.
Therefore the team led by Alex O Okaru and overseen by Prof Isaac O. Kibwage of the University of Nairobi suggests the drinks are spiked with a mixture of pure ethanol to achieve the dangerous kick.
“The public health relevance of this observation is especially grave because the higher content of ethanol is not labeled on the products and thus the consumer may ingest more alcohol than with recorded spirits.”
Okaru said the widespread practice of mixing pure ethanol in the spirits being sold in Nairobi cannot be ruled out.
“This may be dangerous since nonfood grade ethanol may find its way into the drinks with of course possibly negative health effects on the consumers of such drink,” said Okaru.
Our investigation however showed most of the same brands being sold in Kibera are also available in Kawangware, Kangemi, Pipeline, Zimmerman and Eastlands.
“We can tell Kenyans going for this drinks not to trust the labels because most of the content is pure poison packaged as leisure,” said Okaru.
“You got to give these revelers a hard kick, or you are out of business,” says ‘Doc’ a 20-something-year old ‘official’ chang’aa taster at Laini Saba in Kibera.
Doc, who moves from one brewer to the next, acts like a car oil dipstick for measuring the alcoholic content in a particular brew.
“The quicker I get drunk the tougher and better is the stuff,” he told us. His pay of course is the free pint and some grub to keep him going in a life he calls ‘circular.’
Kenyans taste for hard spirits; alcohol marketers say is largely an indicator of changing lifestyles and a society that is falling on hard times.
The WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 had quoted 2010 statistics showing Kenya leading in the consumption of beer in the region.
The report showed 56 per cent of all alcohol consumed in Kenya then to be beer, 22 per cent spirits, two per cent wine and 20 per cent as others including traditional drinks.
But this map has since changed dramatically with cheaper high strength spirits becoming the drink of choice especially for the low income earners.
The 2014 EABL performance report set the tone indicating the highest growth in sales, at 67 per cent, for the brewer was in spirits mainly targeting the lower income earners.
The same income group has also been the target for the now highly spiked brands coming from all sorts of suspect sources.
But while Kenya’s poor and working class turn to the killer brews the 2017 Alcoholic Drinks Survey in Kenya, released in August by the research firm Euromonitor International shows a steady growth in the formal alcohol market.
Growth in the market is driven by the top richest quarter in the country with what the report says is a taste for high end imported brands.
The market, the report says also witnessed growth in 2016 in sales of international brands, with Budweiser beer and Officer’s Choice Whisky setting up shop in Kenya in 2016 to meet demand from the growing middle class.
At a glance
Declared alcohol content in sampled sprits – up to 56.7 per cent
Recommended alcohol content in spirits about 40 per cent
Actual alcohol content in sampled chang’aa was up to 85.8 per cent
Recommended alcohol content in chang’aa about below 57 per cent
Study suggests drinks spiked with pure ethanol
Authors warn the drinks are a threat to public health