For years, poor Africans were limited to home-brew sorghum or maize beer, sometimes made with dangerous ingredients such as battery acid to increase the potency.
Commercial alcohol is now widely available in most African states and premium brands such as Johnny Walker whisky or Heineken beer are increasingly in reach of the average drinker.
Rising incomes have also encouraged conspicuous consumption of premium brands. Even in Worcester’s gritty nightclubs, some tables are weighed down by bottles of pricey spirits such Scotch whiskies Chivas Regal and Glenfiddich.
Drinks companies say commercially produced alcohol is safer than home-brews. “The alternative is that lower income people who wish to consume liquor will buy illicit and potentially dangerous alcohol,” said Vincent Maphai, executive director of Corporate Affairs at SABMiller’s South African unit.
SABMiller is already offering lower priced beer in order to win over drinkers from the home-brew market, which it says is about four times the $11-billion commercial market.
Higher alcohol taxes, which the South African bill is likely to impose, risk of pushing the poor back to potentially lethal home-brews. Nevertheless, public health officials say governments need to do more to warn about the dangers of alcohol abuse.