Lebanon’s underage drinking problem

Little being done to reverse worrying trends in youth

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Younger and younger people are courting Lebanon’s hedonistic bent as they turn to the bottle for a good time. The lack of a coherent alcohol harm reduction policy means Lebanon’s youth are oftentimes ill-informed, exposed to ubiquitous alcohol advertising and able to access an abundant supply of cheap booze.

Between 2005 and 2011 the number of alcohol drinkers between the ages of 13 and 15 in Lebanon rose almost 40 percent according to the Global School Health Study, a collaborative effort between national governments, the World Health Organisation and the Center for Disease Control in the United States of America. Now just under 30 percent of children between these ages are alcohol drinkers, the study found. The likelihood of students in this age range having been drunk increased one and a half times over the same period.

“National alcohol harm reduction efforts are poorly defined and in almost all cases weakly implemented,” said Dr. Lilian Ghandour, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the American University of Beirut. Based on her research regarding the rising risk of alcohol abuse among young people from her own data, and that of the Global School Health Study, Ghandour has secured a three-year $260,000 grant from the International Development Research Center to identify a specific national alcohol control and harm reduction policy package.

“The data is showing us that not only is the frequency and quantity of alcohol use increasing but also that it is among such young people. We are talking about age groups that are not even meant to have access to alcohol,” said Ghandour. Initial data suggests that 25 percent of underage drinkers are getting their alcohol from stores while nearly half obtain it from the family home.

The existing legislation in Lebanon relating to alcohol control policies date back to law 625 from 1985, and is only partially implemented in any case. “The laws are outdated,” said Ghandour, “a bar will get fined just $4 to $10 for serving an underage customer. That will normally be cheaper than the drink itself. It can hardly be considered a deterrent.”

The main pillars of alcohol harm reduction policies are normally taxation; marketing restrictions on advertising and sponsorship; education; drunk driving laws and minimum drinking age regulations — in Lebanon all are notably lax.

Excise taxes on alcohol are negligible, ranging from $0.04 per liter of beer to $0.15 per liter of spirits, with the law last updated in 2000. Sales permit fees are also low, ranging from $18 per brand per annum for points of sale to $600 per brand per annum for big distributors.

Lebanon integrated health into its curriculum in 1997 and the formal Lebanese Integrated Health Curriculum includes a discussion on alcohol and its effects in the ninth grade. However, only 36 percent of ninth graders confirmed having been taught in school about the dangers of alcohol and other drug use, according to the 2005 Global School-Based Health Survey in Lebanon. “There is nothing from the government — no campaigns or anything,” said Zeina Gebran, vice president of Kunhadi, a non-governmental organization working on drunk driving and alcohol awareness.

While education fails to engage Lebanese youth on alcohol safety, advertising targeting the young audience is highly prevalent. Warnings that drinks are “not for under age 18” or to “drink responsibly” are largely ineffective. “Through our daily contact with youth through our prevention activities, we can say that these commercials are very appealing and youths aged 11 to 14 have clearly expressed to us their eagerness to try out these drinks. This is why advertising alcoholic beverages to youth should be heavily regulated and should be re-enforced,” said Ghace Khawam-Sarrouh, senior program officer in the prevention department at Oum el Nour – a rehabilitation and drink and drug prevention organization.

With regard to drunk driving, there are no reliable statistics for the simple reason that there are few checks. “Even when there are accidents they will record if there has been dangerous driving or speeding but not drink driving. There is almost zero implementation of this law,” complained Gebran. According to the Youth Association for Social Awareness (YASA), whose aim is to raise awareness about road safety, more than 700 people die in car crashes every year in Lebanon, of which they estimate around 200 are due to drunk driving.

The AUB project aims to provide an evidence based alcohol control policy package. It will then take civil society, academia, government staff and society at large to ensure that the theory gets implemented in practice and the health and wellbeing of Lebanon’s youth is protected.         

Zak Brophy was Executive's Economics and Policy Editor from 2011 until 2013.