/ 24 January 2007

Alcohol: A death sentence in a bottle?

”You know what really upsets me? It’s when I see all these alcohol ads and there’s no warning on them. There should be a big label on the bottle that says, ‘Alcohol can kill you.”’

Ted*, a recovering alcoholic in his late 50s, believes that had there been some sort of warning label on a bottle of booze — ”like the ones they have on cigarette boxes” — the people around him would have noticed when he started to drink heavily.

One in roughly every four adult males in South Africa experiences symptoms of ”alcohol problems” (signs of an alcohol-use disorder), according to a report compiled by the alcohol- and drug-abuse research unit of the Medical Research Council.

This also holds true for one in every 10 females in the country, and almost one in four high-school students admitted in the report to binge drinking in the previous month.

”South African Breweries [SAB] try with their don’t-drink-and-drive billboards, but that’s popcorn bullshit. They have billions. It’s about time they take more responsibility because alcohol is available on every street corner,” says Ted, his wrinkles scrunching up with every point he makes during the tea break at a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in Parktown, Johannesburg.

SAB is the largest distributor of beer and cider in this country and one of the largest breweries in the world with a capacity of 3,1-billion litres a year. It distributes 26-million hectolitres of alcoholic beverages around the country in the same period.

Alcohol brands are ubiquitous in South Africa. A red castle rimmed in gold, for example, is splashed across cricket pitches and stitched on to players’ uniforms. It represents one of South Africa’s most popular beers, Castle Lager (”the taste that stood the test of time”).

Alcohol advertisers also attach themselves to South African television’s most popular events, such as the recent Golden Globe awards where a Jameson advert appeared at the beginning and end of every commercial break.

Distributors such as SAB and brandhouse spend millions of rands every year on such advertising, placing brands with catchy pay-off lines such as Miller (”It’s Miller time!”) and Smirnoff Storm (”Brrrrr!”) into drinkers’ hands.

”Alcohol-beverage brands are enjoying the benefit of a fast-growing economy and consumers are looking for brands that they can relate to and express their success,” says brandhouse communications officer Julia Seal.

Distributing beverages such as Windhoek Lager and most of the whiskey South Africans drink, brandhouse accounts for 11% of the total alcohol-beverage market in South Africa.


South Africans are among the world’s most vigorous consumers of alcohol, according to a report by Professor Charles Parry of the Medical Research Council. The amount of pure alcohol consumed per drinker is 20 litres per year; the average per adult is 10 litres a year. About 46% of non-natural deaths in South Africa involve persons with alcohol concentrations in their blood.

The Department of Health is drafting regulations to restrict alcohol advertisements and to introduce warning labels on containers on the harmful effects of alcohol.

”Studies in other countries have shown that the overexposure to alcohol advertisements has a negative effect on alcohol consumption among the youth,” says departmental spokesperson Sibani Mngadi, referring to an increase in such consumption.

But the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) — of which SAB and brandhouse are corporate members — insists that there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that alcohol-beverage advertising has any significant effect on the rate of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

”Hence, the [placement] of restrictions or bans on advertising as an instrument of public policy with respect to the prevention of alcohol-related damage is highly questionable,” it reads on Ara.co.za.

Ted disagrees: ”They [advertisers] are saying being out of it is normal; to be drunk means to be the man. It’s false-attitude branding and it’s absolutely not acceptable.”

Tracy*, also a recovering alcoholic, doesn’t notice alcohol advertisements. ”I don’t drink so I don’t notice them,” she says, but she agrees with Ted that beverages such as Brutal Fruit (”Naughty by nature”) and Smirnoff Spin can be especially dangerous for youngsters.

”They’re making alcohol into a juice. They’re funky. There’s [an image] attached to them that makes it cool to drink,” she says.

In his report, South Africa: Alcohol Today, Parry also notes a steady increase over the past decade in per capita consumption of alcoholic fruit beverages and spirit coolers.

Alcohol brands are so vested in society that even children know which drinks are ”cool”. Two primary-school children in Johannesburg say they notice ”lots” of alcohol advertisements.

”There’s that one, swimming upstream, with the two fish that run across the bridge and that one for the brown stuff. Jack Daniels! That’s the one! They advertise that one a lot,” says 12-year-old Taryn*.

”There’s Brutal Fruit and Storm. [Alcohol advertisements] are normally at the back of magazines like Heat,” says Taryn’s 10-year-old friend Emma. When asked what their reactions are to the adverts, Emma says: ”I get thirsty.”


The ARA, which was established to coordinate and direct activities that counter and reduce the abuse of alcohol, says there is no evidence that alcohol advertisements induce young people to drink. It suggests that teenagers begin to drink in response to a set of learned cultural definitions and social expectations.

Studies conducted among adolescents and young adults in Gauteng province between 2002 and 2003 point to strong links between drinking and engagement in risky sexual behaviour, according to Parry’s report.

”Furthermore, almost one in five HIV patients studied at a large infectious diseases clinic in Cape Town in 2003 met criteria for an alcohol-use disorder. These patients were more likely to have symptomatic HIV infection,” the report says.

Tracy, who has been sober for six years and is one of the two million members of the AA worldwide (South Africa has about 6 000 members), says the government puts warnings on cigarette boxes but not on alcohol bottles, even when the damage to families as a result of alcoholism is much worse. ”Cigarettes don’t destroy the lives of people around you. Alcohol does. But no one ever says that on a bottle of booze.”

In a whisper, so he doesn’t disrupt the speaker at the AA meeting, Ted says: ”Alcohol companies won’t admit to the great suffering they’re building. It should be taken to the high court of this country. Alcohol is a long-term death sentence in a bottle.”

* Surnames omitted to protect identities