Alcohol advertising: Let’s have a sober debate

Banning alcohol advertising is a magnificent idea. It's one of those rare government policies that with a simple stroke of the pen would measurably improve public health and welfare. If Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi can make it happen he should be given a medal, perhaps in the shape of a healthy human liver.

I'm going to do two things here: first, I am going to be personal and anecdotal because so has almost everyone who's written against the proposed alcohol advertising ban. Apparently in order to qualify to comment on this issue, a writer has to remind readers that he enjoys a fine whisky of an evening and this has not yet led to him crashing his car or beating people up. Well, two can play that game. Once I've got my qualifying paragraphs out of the way, I'm going to bring in some actual evidence. Brace yourselves.

First, let's get personal. I am a young South African, but I've been living abroad. The first and biggest shock I got when I arrived back here was from how my peers talk about alcohol. Someone I hadn't seen since high school invited me to catch up over tequila. On my first weekend back I was introduced to the phrase (slogan? cry for help?) "eating is cheating". For the refined whisky sippers or indeed the sensible among you, the implication is that having dinner before going out drinking would unreasonably delay the onset of, and limit the outcome of, the night's debauchery.

Shocked? I was. And, just so you're clear, these are middle-class university graduates. My experience in Britain (where businessmen drink half a beer with a working lunch) and Spain (where the first beer of a weekday might be at breakfast) pales in comparison. Citizens of those countries drink more in total, but not (in my observation) with the same sort of competitive, sophomoric glee.

Now let's look at the evidence. I have not found myself in a small pocket of drinkers in a dry country: nearly half of adult South Africans are "heavy episodic drinkers", according to the World Health Organisation. In South Africa, we hit the bottle early – 12% of us before the age of 13 – and we hit it hard: depending on your data source, 20% to 35% of under-20s are binge drinkers, and the sources agree that teen binge drinking has increased in recent years.

The alcohol industry's own research reckons that alcohol is directly responsible for 4% to 6% of deaths in South Africa a year – that's about 30 000 people. A large proportion of those deaths would have been the result of cirrhosis of the liver, a long, slow, horrible way to die, and a much larger proportion would have been because of road collisions, a short, fast, horrible way to die.

Do South Africa's crime figures get you down? Alcohol is involved in half of all homicides and violent deaths in this country. Oh, and 17% of suicides. In fact, I'd lay a large bet on the claim that almost none of those roughly 30 000 preventable alcohol-related deaths each year involve people going peacefully in their sleep. What's the bottom line here? Simple: alcohol consumption kills people.

Why do people drink so much? Why do teenagers drink so much? These are difficult questions, as you could learn from the recent flood of spam from the alcohol industry and its shills. But social scientists tackle difficult questions all the time, and sometimes they come up with answers. A whole barrelful of studies have established that alcohol advertising influences young people's behaviour. More than that: exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with young people taking up drinking and existing drinkers increasing their consumption.

Advertising normalises alcohol consumption, makes it fun. We know the dangers of advertising. We also know what to do about it: banning alcohol advertising leads to lower use. One such study concludes that banning advertising of spirits leads to a 16% reduction in alcohol consumption, and banning advertising of beer and wine leads to an 11% reduction. Another concludes that each alcohol ad thus banned leads to a decrease in consumption of 5% to 8%, and yet another shows that the ad bans mean fewer road deaths.

The alcohol industry and its evidence-deprived supporters would like to move quickly along to the economic arguments, the freedom-of-speech arguments, the what-about-my-favourite-sports-team arguments, so we need to keep an eye on the bottom line: the lives that an alcohol advertising ban would probably save.

The advertising industry, our constitutional protections and the sports teams will all survive the ban, but more importantly, so will 30 000 people a year.

Jesse Harber is a political economist and writer.

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