Public Health Professor Works To End Alcohol Marketing To Uganda’s Youth

By Anna Varela

For five years, Dr. Monica Swahn has studied the no-holds barred approach to marketing alcohol in the crowded slums of Kampala, Uganda, and how easy access to alcohol has helped fuel high rates of HIV transmission.

Unlike the U.S., which has strict rules on where and how alcohol can be marketed, the industry is self-regulating in Uganda.

“Sometimes they have big billboards right in front of schools,” said Swahn, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the School of Public Health. “There’s no limit to placement, context, content.”

Portrait of Dr. Monica Swahn

Dr. Monica Swahn

Industry reps even offer free alcohol to children. Though the drinking age in Uganda is 18, “the industry and sellers through the reps give free alcohol to whoever walks up. It doesn’t matter if you’re 12 or 15.”

Much of Swahn’s work in Uganda has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, with the goal of developing an alcohol prevention program to reduce underage drinking and alcohol-related HIV transmission rates. She works closely with the nonprofit Uganda Youth Development Link, which runs drop-in centers for youth in the Kampala slums.

In a typical day, 1,600 young people stop in for counseling, HIV screening, vocational training and other services. Swahn met the nonprofit’s executive director, Rogers Kasirye, at a scientific conference in Europe, where he spoke about how alcohol was damaging the lives of young people in a nation where half the population is under the age of 15.

“I thought, ‘Why is nobody talking about alcohol in Africa?’ It’s this huge burden,” Swahn said. “We talk about HIV, other infectious diseases and health problems but ignore alcohol, even though it is so clearly linked to these health concerns.”

She notes that many public health efforts in Africa focus on helping children survive the first five years of life.

“And I would never argue with that,” she said. “But what I’m worried about is that if we don’t have interventions for alcohol use and mental health, we’re losing the youth to violent crime, suicide, high levels of alcohol, HIV. Then they don’t live healthy lives or become productive citizens. They will die much too early, which is so tragic, given that we know how to improve their well-being and prevent their deaths.”