Govt eyes overhaul of alcohol industry

If the government gets its way, the alcohol industry could be in for a massive overhaul. But whether the strict new regulations being proposed will be implemented effectively and result in less harmful drinking remains to be seen.

Earlier this month, the department of social development hosted its second biennial summit on substance abuse in Durban. A total of 35 resolutions were made by the end of the summit. The most widely reported of these were a proposal to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 and a proposed ban on all alcohol advertising in both public and private media. But there were also proposals to curb drug use and human trafficking.

Some in the industry have questioned the timing of the call for stiffer alcohol regulation. “One cannot help but wonder if the timing of this is because of the local election,” said Odette van der Haar, CEO of the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA). She said alcohol was an “easy target” for electioneering

But Zane Dangor, a member of the government’s inter-ministerial task team on substance abuse and special adviser to the minister of social development, disagreed. “This is not a nanny state or party political issue,” he said. “It’s a public health issue that cuts across party political lines.” He said that rather than being an easy target, clamping down on alcohol abuse could “easily backfire” on the state with negative sentiment from the public.

He also pointed out that not all of the 35 resolutions put forward would need to go through Cabinet for approval. Some of the proposals, such as implementing stricter licensing laws and implementing zoning laws that prevent liquor trading near schools, libraries or places of worship, fall under the ambit of the Department of Trade and Industry, and could be implemented relatively soon.

“We know there’s going to be a battle. We know the liquor industry will seek to counteract most of the measures we want to put in place,” he said. But, Dangor said, the burden of harmful drinking on the health and social systems could not be ignored.

Serious problem
It’s undeniable that South Africa has a serious problem when it comes to alcohol. Recent research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that South Africa has the dubious distinction of being among the top five countries with the riskiest drinking patterns — largely frequent binging — in the world.

Risky drinking is not just a private problem; it’s a public health problem. Alcohol is the world’s third largest risk factor for disease burden, and harmful drinking has been linked to non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis of the liver and various cancers, as well as to infectious conditions like HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections. Injuries resulting from road traffic accidents, violence and suicides also add to the disease burden of harmful drinking.

Savera Kalideen, advocacy manager for health and development NGO Soul City, which has welcomed the proposals to crack down on alcohol abuse, said South Africans often make the link between drinking and driving but not the link between drinking and alcohol.

“We have a higher death rate than countries at war … the death rate is eight times the global average for men, and five times the global average for women,” she said. “Fifty percent of those deaths are alcohol related, and over 70% of injuries are alcohol related.”


However, she said punitive laws alone would not change the culture of drinking in the country. “Our approach is that you don’t just ban the adverts and raise the drinking age and leave it at that.” Instead, a multi-sectoral and multi-faceted approach that includes social mobilisation is needed.

Adrian Botha, director of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA), believes the answer to the country’s alcohol problem lies not in new laws, but in better policing of existing ones. “This is already a very heavily regulated industry. The laws exist, they just need to be applied,” he said.

Taxes and duties
Part of the government’s proposed strategy to regulate the industry also involves increasing taxes and duties on alcohol products and imposing a mandatory contribution by the liquor industry to an independent fund that will work to prevent and treat alcohol abuse.

But Botha questioned the need for this. He said the liquor industry already contributes more than R35-billion in taxes to the state each year, which could be spent on the same initiatives. Increasing taxes on liquor producers would pass the cost on to the consumer, and “if you put up the price, people either buy down or buy other concoctions”, he said. Home brews and traditional beers form a significant part of the country’s alcohol sector and are unregulated. Regulating this sector was one of the proposals put forward at the summit.

The ACA, the industry body for advertising and communications, said it does not agree with a total ban on advertising but would prefer a strategy that involves “dilution” — that is, ensuring that alcohol advertisements are not flighted during certain times of the day, social responsibility messaging, and partnerships with the government to address the effects of harmful alcohol use.

The ACA’s Van der Haar believes banning alcohol advertising will not solve the country’s problem with harmful drinking. “It will just give rise to more creative ways to advertise the product,” she said. “Essentially, what will happen is that advertising spend will go from above the line to below the line.”

So advertisers would move away from using television adverts and billboards towards experiential events and promotions, like parties sponsored by a particular company and at which only one brand of alcohol is available. This type of event has been popularised by tobacco companies in recent years.

Sore point
Meanwhile, the South African Liquor Traders’ Association said it is concerned about how an increase in taxes and licensing will affect traders. High licensing fees are already a sore point for the organisation. The organisation’s chairperson, Saint Madlala, said liquor traders in the Western Cape and Gauteng are already planning to hold a march on April 12 to protest existing “unbearable” licensing fees and unfair treatment by police.

“There are many cases where police are abusing their powers,” he said, pointing to incidents where police had allegedly shut down licensed traders at arbitrary times or confiscated stock from traders they accused of holding fake licences.

Kimberly liquor trader Uncle Maruping said making it harder to attain a liquor trading licence would “force people underground [and] it creates more problems”.

“Then you waste more money trying to find these people underground. Rather make them responsible traders,” he said.

Maruping said high unemployment in the Northern Cape had led to an increase in the number of unlicensed traders in the province. But he said he was sympathetic to the plight of illegal traders. These people are at least trying to “avoid crime” and create employment, he said. Maruping said he would not judge police for turning a blind eye to such traders or community members who failed to report them.

According to Soul City, there are 220 000 liquor outlets in the country and only 20 000 of these are licensed.

The liquor industry may have been taken aback by the severity of the overhaul that the government is proposing but, for the large part, the strategies put forward are aligned with the WHO’s global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

Thapelo Sakoana, a spokesperson for the department of social development, said it is “very likely” that the resolutions put forward at the summit will become concrete proposals for laws. “This will be preceded by consultations with affected stakeholders, but will also depend on the policy review processes based on the proposals made at the summit,” he said.

A team has been assembled to draft a five-year programme of action for endorsement by the inter-ministerial committee on anti-substance abuse, which involves nine government ministries. This will then be passed on to other government structures and later to Cabinet.

The 35 proposals put forward at the anti-substance abuse summit include:

  • Raising the legal age for alcohol consumption to 21.
  • Restricting the time and days of the week that alcohol can be legally sold.
  • Implementing regulations to restrict the number of liquor outlets.
  • Regulating home brews and “concoctions”.
  • Raising duties and taxes on alcohol products.
  • Increasing the criminal liability of those who sell alcohol to underage drinkers, intoxicated patrons, and people they know will operate motor vehicles.
  • Imposing a mandatory contribution by the liquor industry to an independent fund.
  • Banning all advertising of alcoholic products in public and private media.
  • Banning all sponsorship by the alcohol industry for sports, recreation, arts and cultural events.
  • Reducing the legal alcohol limit for drivers.
  • Disallowing novice drivers from consuming any alcohol before driving.

On April 5, Soul City and the Mail & Guardian will host a Critical Thinking Forum on the topic, “Who pays for alcohol-related harm?” To attend the event in Cape Town contact Tamarin Marshman on 011 250 7420 or via email at [email protected]

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