Alcohol, 'the drug', is the problem

The alcohol industry takes a toll on South Africa’s economy and has grim results in both social and health consequences.

“If alcohol were to be synthesised in a lab today it would be a schedule five drug,” said Dr Cathy Ward, a clinical-community psychologist whose work focuses on crime and violence and their associated problems.

She was speaking at a Critical Thinking Forum at Glenhove conference centre in Johannesburg on Tuesday evening. The debate was held in conjunction with Mail & Guardian and Phuza Wize, a Soul City drink-safe, live-safe initiative.

Xolani Gwala—an SAfm presenter and host for talk show Asikhulume—acted as moderator.

The other panellists were: Gerard Boyce, a full-time PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and Samukelisiwe Coka, head of the Inkanyezi Foundation in Cape Town which seeks to empower South Africans through information sharing.

Ward said the cost of alcohol to the economy was well over R1-billion and the figure didn’t include the money spent on research and prevention, or absenteeism of employees.

“The shortfall is closer to R5-billion,” she said.

Boyce said that 99% of the government’s expenses related to alcohol were for treatment of health consequences. “It is a reactive approach we are adapting,” he said.

“The benefits are short term while the costs to the community are high. The costs are not quantified but they are there.”

Drinking to intoxication
Statistics showed that 50% of men and 80% of women in South Africa did not drink. “It’s not the fact that we are drinking, it is how we are drinking,” Ward said. “We are drinking to intoxication.”

One of the leading causes of child mistreatment could be attributed to substance abuse, and alcohol was the third leading risk factor for death, disability and injury in South Africa.

“We are binge drinking and 39% of the damage is interpersonal violence,” she said.

Coka also noted the huge role unlicensed taverns, or shebeens, played in alcohol consumption and abuse. The existence of shebeens during apartheid “was imperative at the time” as many South Africans could not easily buy liquor from formal

“It has been unregulated for such a long time, regulation won’t help. People will just find other ways. Alcohol is a source of income in the black and coloured townships,” she said.

Who created it?
“Who created the shebeen sector?” Coka asked.

“Government knows. They issued distribution licences left, right and centre. Where did they think the alcohol was going to? They are directly and indirectly involved in the shebeen sector.”

Ward said the solution was not to close shebeens down, but to shift the emphasis to safer drinking, such as serving food and soft drinks and to roll out programmes to handle inebriated patrons.

Ward admitted that regulating trading hours may result in a loss of income for shebeens, but it would ultimately result in a safer community.

Coka said: “Civil society has a role to play but unfortunately they are all silent. Grassroots societies are not yet issue orientated. It doesn’t affect them, yet it is next door.”

“How can we continue to turn a blind eye to outlets which are linked with homicide and crime? We all know ‘so and so’s’ child was murdered there yet no one talks to the police. Does it have to be your child that is killed before you will speak?”

“I do think policy can help in educating,” Ward said. “But it is certainly not the only thing. Alcohol, ‘the drug’, is the problem.”

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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