/ 30 March 2012

State gets tough on alcohol

South Africa needs a specialised, independent and well-resourced body to investigate illicit trading. The call was made at a panel discussion hosted by the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa

The unprecedented tightening of legislation governing liquor consumption in South Africa is a reflection of increased international activity to tackle the problems of abuse as well as the fact that liquor has become a domestic political issue.

Adrian Botha, a consultant to the liquor industry’s Association for Responsible Alcohol Use, said in his long career in the industry there had never been as much activity as in the past year.

For instance, almost every province is rewriting its liquor legislation, including Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. The Western Cape’s new legislation will come into effect in April.

Convoluted jurisdictions spread across national, provincial and municipal competencies are one of the reasons why the pace of passing legislation is slow.

  • The national government controls big liquor manufacturers and the distribution of their products and has default legislation for provinces that do not have their own legislation;
  • Provincial governments control licencing and retailing; and
  • Municipal governments have such jurisdiction as provinces delegate to them.

The measures that are being contemplated on all these levels include restricting access to alcohol in time, location and content, harmonising legislation on liquor, reviewing liquor licence fees, monitoring compliance with licence conditions, linking licence renewal to levels of compliance, exploring the possibility of raising the age of consumption and trade in alcohol from 18 years to 21 years, strengthening the capacity of inspectorate bodies and policing, and increasing measures to deal with public drinking and drunk driving.

An early result of the intensified activity was the 2012 budget’s increases in excise duties across all tobacco and alcohol products, with a massive 20% increase on spirits.

Another complicating factor is that various national ministries are involved, particularly the departments of trade and industry, social welfare and health. Hitherto these ministries have often contradicted each other because of their varying distances from the powerful liquor industry, but late last year an inter-ministerial committee was formed to create a homogenised message from the national government.

Locally and internationally the increased activity regarding liquor is partly because of perceived success – after many decades of action — against smoking.

But liquor is regarded as being far more harmful than smoking, particularly in South Africa. The country is not one of the top per-capita consumers of alcohol in the world, primarily because it has many teetotallers. But it is a leader in alcohol and social-abuse ratios, because South African drinkers have high ratios of harmful episodic drinking.

Galvanising heightened international activity was the publication in January 2011 of the World Health Organisation’s report, “The Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health”. It was followed by a summit in Durban last year and a liquor regulation conference in Midrand organised by the department of trade and industry earlier this month.

Liquor is increasingly becoming a political issue. The trend started in the national elections in April 2009 when alcohol abuse became a political issue in the Western Cape, led by Premier Helen Zille and Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille. Liquor is a particularly emotive issue in the Western Cape, where alcohol and substance abuse are the main causes of violent death and injury.

Since then, ANC politicians have joined the trend, reinforced by the appointment of a crusading minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi.

He has said that he is not afraid of the liquor industry and that it will only be a matter of time before liquor advertising is banned.

Professor Melvyn Freeman, cluster manager for non-communicable diseases in the health department, said international experience had shown that, of all the many measures that could be taken to limit the damage alcohol did, three were the most effective:

  • Limiting accessibility, for instance, the hours of trading and raising the statutory age of consumption;
  • Limiting marketing by restricting or banning liquor advertising, as has been the case with tobacco advertising; and
  • Raising prices in the form of further excise duty increases.

Freeman said alcohol was a major risk factor for health and community and family cohesion. It affected the community by increasing HIV infection rates, for example, and industry by causing absenteeism, and it had a negative impact on almost all other diseases.

He said pressure from community members sick of the damage alcohol causes had been part of the reason for the recent heightened government action.

Commentators in the industry say liquor is an easy target when little progress is being made on the real problems that underlie alcohol abuse, such as poverty alleviation.

Although all political parties seem to be in agreement about getting tough on alcohol, there is still chronic disagreement between the government and the liquor producing and marketing industry.

Freeman said the liquor industry would like to blame alcohol abuse on “weak people”, but the government believed the focus should also be placed on products. Botha said, internationally, 10% of populations were at risk of abusing alcohol, even in Muslim countries where the problem just went underground.

Freeman said the liquor industry wanted to tackle the problem with education, but international experience had shown that education was not among the most effective tools.

“Alcohol is an insidious product in that you don’t have the control over it that you would like, or that you think you have. When you start to drink your judgment is impaired and you believe that another drink will not matter.”

Riaan Kruger, chief executive of the South African Liquor Brand Owners’ Association, confirmed that the liquor industry’s approach would be “education, education, education”, particularly material focusing on younger people.

And, indeed, the liquor industry as a whole — and all the huge companies that drive it – has a dizzying array of education initiatives to combat liquor abuse.

The industry can claim some success in its education initiatives, particularly in raising awareness of the evils of driving drunk. Few would argue that there is now much less inclination to take to the road after drinking than in the past, because of advertising campaigns by major liquor companies. However, this improvement may also be due to increased policing.

Professor Charles Parry, director of the alcohol and drug-abuse research unit of the Medical Research Council, agreed that there had been success in reducing drunk driving, but said that other education initiatives had not shown much success. For instance, he said, research indicated a sharp rise in binge drinking among South African high-school students and he believed liquor companies made a large slice of their profit from binge drinkers.

Kruger believes that provinces such as the Western Cape, in which the wine industry is the single largest contributor to the economy, cannot afford to paint the industry with one “abuse” brush.

But Freeman said the cost of the related harm far outweighed the economic benefits the industry brought.

And to the media industry, which has complained that there would be job losses if liquor advertising is banned, Freeman said: “We are not persuaded by the job-losses argument. We cannot afford to have jobs that are about promoting this. And when tobacco advertising was banned, other advertisers, for instance cellphone suppliers, filled the gap.” Freeman said the government was not saying that any single measure would solve the problem. “For instance, an advertising ban will not, on its own, makes a big difference. You have to have a broad range of actions.”

One major factor — it could be called the untackled elephant in the room — is that, according to Kruger, 60% of all alcohol in South Africa is sold in illegal outlets, primarily shebeens in townships. Whatever new legislation is introduced into an already complex legislative mix, most of it will be largely unapplied in these outlets.