Thou shalt not sell alcohol to teenagers

I GREW up in a Christian family set up. As far as I can recall, Sunday was always a busy day in our rather large family. To ensure that home chores continue undisrupted, we took turns to attend mass at the nearby Catholic Church. 
Paul Ntambara
Paul Ntambara

I GREW up in a Christian family set up. As far as I can recall, Sunday was always a busy day in our rather large family. To ensure that home chores continue undisrupted, we took turns to attend mass at the nearby Catholic Church. 

As an altar boy, I helped the priest break bread and pour the wine that I didn’t share.

Attending catechism classes was just like a rite of passage. A review of the previous lesson always began with the recitation of the Ten Commandments. The seventh one, for some reason always attracted innocent chuckles. 

Those days are long gone. Today I am at pains to string together the Ten Commandments in their right order. Those days, this was considered as sacrilege by the old bi-spectacled catechist who wore a huge insignia of the cross that always reminded me of the cross at Calvary. 

My religious practice now is more liberal and events in the past few days have convinced me that on top of the Ten Commandments, we need another; Thou shalt not sell alcohol to teenagers. 

The New Times on Sunday August 2 published a story about the closure of Kimihurura based Lebanese Bar and Restaurant. The owners had been adjudged to have contravened a directive not to sell alcohol to minors. 

Those teenagers that were netted during the swoop were on top of binge drinking, found smoking and were scantily dressed. As expected it generated a lot of public uproar. 

But this was nothing new. The problem of alcohol abuse by teenagers has been with us for quite some time; it is just that we have always buried our heads in the sand with hope to see it pass, only to be confronted by the ugly truth, just like the Sunday newspaper story indicated that the problem remains in our midst, if not getting worse.

Then we harp and yap about it and the cycle continues. 

But it is the view of my colleague Sunny Ntayombya about this problem published in this column on Wednesday that I found interesting. 

Mr Ntayombya signs off his rather interesting article thus: “so, instead of blaming those who sell booze and tobacco to teenagers perhaps its time we shifted the responsibility to where it actually falls, to their parents. It shouldn’t be a bar owner’s responsibility to manage teenagers, its simply not their job.” 

This is what I find naive on the author’s part. 

While he agrees that proprietors of bars should ‘demand to see a patron’s ID before serving them alcohol and tobacco products’ letting them off the hook as he does in his conclusion betrays the main core of his writing – stemming alcohol abuse by teenagers.

Bar owners world over have a duty to protect juveniles by not serving them alcohol.

It does not make sense to pin a big notice: NO CHILDREN UNDER THE AGES OF 18 ALLOWED TO ENTER THE BAR. DEFAULTERS SHALL BE PUNISHED BY LAW, but go ahead and serve them alcohol just because they have ‘money burning a hole in their pocket,’ as Ntayombya puts it.

For the Lebanese Bar, this notice was just like any other decoration – it meant nothing and so they did nothing to protect the teenagers and their own business, by extension.

You don’t just go and buy a gun just because you have money; there are conditions to be met. Managing the teenage alcohol problem is not just about parents, it is naive to think that teenagers have their parents as the only source of money to spend on alcohol and cigarettes and that if parents stopped giving them money, the problem will go away.

Truth is that teenagers can get money from anywhere; from family members, siblings, and friends, even more scary, they can use other unscrupulous means to get it, if this is the only thing that stands between them and alcohol.

It is such arguments that prop rather silly excuses from bar owners just like in the case of the owner of the Lebanese bar; Hassan Jamul.

He is quoted as saying: “I have done nothing wrong; I came to Rwanda to invest my money…these things happen anywhere, this is in not the only bar we have people smoking shisha, or allowing young people inside.”

The fact that other bars are doing it doesn’t make it right, this is only valuable information to the law enforcers that the problem is widespread. No country worth its name would allow illegal businesses in the name of attracting investment.

The argument just doesn’t add up.

Locking teenagers out of bars will at least cut on one avenue on the supply side. Teenagers will at least be made to know that they cannot be served alcohol over the counter whenever they want it.

Teenage or underage drinking is a societal problem; it is public health and safety problem. It requires a community effort to root out. It calls for a multi-faceted approach that includes parents, the community and the state. Parents cannot do it alone.

The writer is a Foreign Resident Correspondent in Beijing, China.

Twitter: @haliri

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