All over the world, alcohol use is more acceptable and popular than illicit drug use. Alcohol is a toxic and psychoactive substance with dependence-producing properties often affecting various neural pathways and parts of the brain, with its effects depending on the dose ingested, genetic factors, the experience of the drinker as well as aspects of the setting.
It is obvious that alcoholic drinks and products are a routine part of many social gatherings locally, nationally, and internationally. In most cases, it is very easy to overlook or discount the health and social damage brought about by or contributed to by drinking.
The harmful use of alcohol is one of the leading risk factors for population health worldwide and has a direct impact on many health-related targets of the Sustainable Development goals including those for maternal and child health, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, mental health and injuries. Sometimes, the situation is made worse for those individuals who choose not to drink as they are seen as outcasts or low class by their peers and often have to give reasons for not drinking. And those who yield to the peer pressure may actually end up becoming alcoholics against their own will but do it to fit in their social circles.
According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year as well as to disabilities and poor health of millions of people globally. Overall, harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease. Harmful use of alcohol is accountable for 7.1% and 2.2% of the global burden of disease for males and females respectively. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 years, accounting for 10 percent of all deaths in this age group. Disadvantaged and especially vulnerable populations have higher rates of alcohol-related death and hospitalization.
Specifically, alcohol use also has an impact on the health of women and children. Research shows the association of alcohol consumption with engagement in unprotected sex has been shown to increase the risk of unintended pregnancies.
In addition, alcohol use during pregnancy has several negative implications for newborns grouped under the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). These include; alcohol neurodevelopmental disorders, birth defects among others. It is therefore important to note that not drinking alcohol is the safest option for pregnant and lactating mothers and they should be supported to do so for the best outcomes. Alcohol use amongst adolescents can also increase sexual risks such as having unprotected sex, poor selection of sexual partners etc which can increase the risk of HIV/AIDS and STI transmission.
Negative outcomes that emerge from drinking alcohol not only affect the drinker but also affect those around him/her such as; family members and relatives, friends and those encountered on the roads. These can be in the form of violence, assault, rape, road accidents, family members anxiety/depression, poverty, community nuisance etc. In reality, the risk of alcoholic use outweighs its benefits. It is noted that addressing the harmful use of alcohol requires the government as a whole and the people in society with appropriate engagements and collaborations with public–health–oriented NGOS, professional associations and civil society groups as stated in the Global status report on alcohol and health of 2018.
To be alcohol-free is a choice just like any other everyday choices we as individuals make, and the earlier the young people know and understand this, the easier it will be to deal with the peer pressure and patronizing questions that come with making that ‘choice’ at social gatherings. Though we must admit it never gets easier, there is always a constant temptation and pressure to get give alcohol a try and it is strange to think that alcohol is the only drug we have to explain not using. It’s time to change this narrative. Being alcohol-free is a choice that should not require an explanation, embarrassment, or bring about fear of condemnation.
The authors are; Obeny Jackie Patience; BSc trained Midwife working with Gulu Regional Referral Hospital and
Lilian Nuwabaine; BSc Nurse & MSN-Midwife & Women’s’ Health Specialist working with Aga Khan University as the CPD Coordinator & is the HIHA winner-Midwife of the year 2021