Frontline Africa Advisory

SA’s drinking problem – Stricter legislation won’t make a difference

SA’s drinking problem – Stricter legislation won’t make a difference

For a long time now, South Africans’ alcohol demand and consumption has been a cause for concern for government, the industry, health experts and greater civil society. In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked South Africa “as a country with one of the riskiest patterns of alcohol consumption, and with the highest reported alcohol consumption in Africa.”
In its report Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018, the WHO showed South Africans to be some of the heaviest alcohol drinkers in the world. In 2016, it was estimated that 31% of the population aged 15 and above consume alcohol. This is despite alcohol excise taxes being almost double what they were across all categories in 2012.These reports suggest an unsustainable culture of alcohol usage, addiction and abuse that needs to be dealt with. This culture was clearly demonstrated during the 2020 and 2021 Covid-19 lockdowns, which led to a rise in the illicit alcohol trade.

Research conducted by Euromonitor Consulting revealed that “total illicit alcohol consumption increased to 665 431 in HL LAE [hectolitres of pure alcohol] in 2020, reaching 22% of total HL LAE volume of licit and illicit alcohol consumption in 2022, compared to 14.5% in 2017 and 13% in 2012.” The report also added that increased homebrew consumption and the emergence of fermented fruit homebrew (such as pineapple beer) was driven by a lack of access to legal alcohol sales, combined with easily available ingredients. 

Moves to increase drinking age

The South African Liquor Brand owners Association (SALBA) also highlighted that illicit trade, representing 22% of the South African alcohol market, was the second largest “player” in the local industry. Additionally, the Euromonitor report also revealed that fiscal loss for 2020, due to illicit trade (including counterfeit brands, smuggling, illicit home brews and tax leakage) was R11.3 billion.

Alcohol abuse is at the forefront of discussions between government and civil society groups as it has been linked to crime, drunk driving, gender-based violence, non-communicable diseases underage drinking. Government and anti-alcohol groups advocate for higher excise taxes, increasing the legal drinking age, limiting sales to individuals – to name a few, as part of a slew of measures to counter consumption patterns. 

In recent years, the public discourse on alcohol has become muddled, with some drawing parallels with narcotics such as tik, cocaine, mandrax etc. This leads to binary “good vs evil” responses, which have failed to yield the desired outcomes, as abusive consumption continues to show an upward trend. In this context, government’s proposed liquor amendment bill is the equivalent of placing a plaster on a stab wound. Among other things, the draft Bill proposes increasing the legal drinking age to 21, stricter advertising restrictions, as well as introducing a new liability clause for alcohol manufacturers and retailers.  

While regulation is a good start towards attempting to reduce excessive alcohol consumption, on its own it is unlikely to achieve the desired change in consumption patterns.

Stricter regulation of tobacco has proven that over-regulation is not an answer. Despite bans on tobacco advertising and indoor smoking, smoking rates have not decreased significantly. A profile of South Africa, written up by the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, showed that by 2017 about 20% of South Africa’s population, aged 15 years and above, smoked cigarettes. In 1993, it was estimated that smoking prevalence among adults was about 33%. While the decline is relatively good it also reveals that newer generations, those born in the 90s and those born in the 2000s, when government came down hard on smoking (e.g. banning advertising), were not deterred from picking up the habit.

High level of dysfunction

As with any problematic behavioural issue, government finds it easier to act through legislative instruments rather than engage in sustained interventions that change lives meaningfully. It is no use introducing stricter legislative requirements when the real problem is not being dealt with; that is, South African society’s relationship with alcohol.

Other than the “drink responsibly” messaging, there is no sustained educational interventions by government and stakeholders to teach children about the dangers of alcohol. Granted, this is not a government only responsibility. However, the government must consider that South African society suffers from a high level of dysfunction. Families are broken. Communities are battling the scourge of poverty. Until and unless all stakeholders accept that legal instruments alone are insufficient, South Africa is likely to continue to bear the external costs of excessive alcohol consumption. 

As the ANC enters its policy year, it ought to review and reflect what successes the policy led approach has had in changing behaviour. To the extent that this approach has failed, an effort must be made to understand what other measures could have impact on shaping a healthier relationship with alcohol. Failure to engage in this exercise will lead to sustained failure in the long term. 

Written by Linda Busuku _ Published by News24

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