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Marketing professor helps combat underage drinking in Uganda

Uganda project
Dr. Vinita Sangtani (left) and Dr. Monica Swahn (right) collect small alcohol containers in Kampala, Uganda.

In the slums of Kampala, Uganda, billboards and industry representatives market alcohol to all passersby, and more than a third of Kampala youth are exposed to alcohol advertising six or more times per week. This has led to widespread underage drinking. Dr. Vinita Sangtani, associate professor of marketing in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia (UNG), is part of a team working to combat that situation.

Before coming to the United States, Sangtani worked in marketing and corporate fundraising for a non-profit organization in India focused on uplifting underprivileged children through education. Sangtani, who already has already earned a doctorate in marketing, is pursuing a master's degree in public health to become involved in health promotion and make a difference in society. She became interested in a project that her professor, Dr. Monica Swahn, mentioned during a class in spring 2015.

Uganda billboard
A billboard marketing alcohol in Kampala, Uganda.

"When Dr. Swahn mentioned her project, I knew this was exactly what I had enrolled in the program for. The Mike Cottrell College of Business was supportive of my involvement and agreed to provide part funding," Sangtani said.

According to Swahn, Uganda has few restrictions on alcohol marketing and little to no enforcement of the legal drinking age, which is 18. She said this practice is related to several other health concerns within the country, which is why she wanted to combat it.

"Alcohol advertisement in Kampala is bold and prolific. We have mainly focused on measuring and understanding the alcohol consumption patterns among youth and their involvement in alcohol-related risk behaviors such as violence and transmission of HIV/AIDS," Swahn said. "A couple of years ago, we received a National Institutes of Health grant to develop a large-scale intervention assessing the neighborhood characteristics and structural drivers of early alcohol use, and to find the best way to address these risk factors and prevent early alcohol use. We're finalizing that intervention and seeking funds to implement it."

Two major problems in how alcohol is marketed in Kampala lie in the placement of billboards and the size of the containers in which alcohol is sold, which sometimes are as small as 1.3 ounces, Sangtani said.

"There are dozens of alcohol-related billboards near schools, ensuring that impressionable children and adolescents are bombarded with these messages each day on their way to and from school," she said. "Also, though alcohol is expensive and many people would not normally be able to afford it, companies are selling very small containers that enable consumers to buy their product."

Industry representatives also hand out samples to nearly anyone who approaches, regardless of age, Swahn said.

Along with the Uganda Youth Development Link, a non-profit organization that provides services to hard-to-reach young people living in the streets and slums, the group is working to enact measures to counteract the problem:

  • Reduce the number of billboards advertising alcohol
  • Ban alcohol ads within 500 meters, or 1625 feet, of any schools
  • Ban marketing alcohol in sachets and introducing minimum container size of 250 milliliters, or 8.45 ounces
  • Ban distribution of free samples to minors
  • Ensure appropriate warning labels on containers

"We are particularly grateful for Prof. Sangtani's involvement as she has been instrumental in collaborating with me to develop a scale to assess the structural and neighborhood characteristics that may differentiate these slum communities in Kampala in terms of engagement and health-risk behaviors," Swahn said.

The group's next steps are to write a grant for implementation of the alcohol counter-marketing campaign and to continue advocacy efforts with the Ugandan government. They have also presented their findings at the Uganda Ministry of Health Conference and are holding workshops for bar owners and organizations that work with Kampala youth.

Swahn is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.

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