Is this the Bill the alcohol industry doesn’t want you to see?

COMMENT

The government is violating its constitutional obligations, as well as international law, by withholding a Bill from the public. The Control of Marketing of Alcohol Beverages Bill of 2013 has not been made available for public comment — for no apparent reason and despite numerous reports by the Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa).

This key piece of legislation seeks to address the link between the marketing of alcohol and alcohol abuse as well as alcohol-related health issues, such as gender-based violence.

Alcohol marketing directly influences consumption and impacts greatly on society, especially the youth, a 2018 University of Cape Town study found. The Bill supposedly prohibits the advertising and marketing of alcohol — except for at the point of sale — sponsorship associated with alcoholic beverages and the promotion of alcoholic beverages. But the alcohol industry has a substantial interest in postponing the Bill’s release — and the legislative process — for as long as possible to safeguard its profits.

South Africa has one of the highest binge drinking rates in the world. A 2017 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review found that the nation had the seventh-highest binge-drinking rate out of 10 countries, including Britain, Thailand and Australia.

In South Africa, 25% of young people under the age of 19 binge drink, the 2013 South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey revealed. Underage binge drinking is a particularly harmful form of drinking because young people who do it are also more likely to have dangerous alcohol consumption patterns as adults.

2017 study published in Addiction shows binge drinking is also associated with a higher risk of developing lifestyle diseases.

The government spends over R263-billion annually on alcohol-related harms, such as poor health, domestic or interpersonal violence, and road accidents, according to a 2017 Western Cape White Paper on alcohol-related harm reduction policy

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On average, 171 alcohol-related deaths occurred per day in South Africa in 2017, a 2018 study in the open-access journal BMC Medicine states. 

The World Health Organisation has addressed alcohol advertising in two policies: the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol and the Global Status Report on Non-Communicable Diseases 2010. The latter regards marketing regulations as an effective measure for addressing alcohol-related non-communicable diseases such as various forms of liver disease — including cirrhosis — and cardiovascular conditions, such as hypertension and haemorrhagic strokes.

Public health benefits from legislation that regulates alcohol marketing, a growing body of research shows, because a substantial proportion of the global burden of disease can be attributed to alcohol consumption. 

The marketing of alcohol in South Africa is currently only governed by a “Code of Commercial Communication”. International standards, however, dictate that there is a need for legislation on this issue.

The Control of Marketing of Alcohol Beverages Bill could develop into such legislation — but despite being approved for publication for public comment in 2013, the Bill remains a secret.

The South African Constitution provides for the right to access of information and the right to public participation and consultation. The withholding of the Bill — for over five years — violates constitutional law and international obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Under the covenant, the government is obliged to ensure access to information on health-related issues. The Saapa raised this issue in a submission to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in August 2018, because the government did not respond to any of its requests to release the Bill.

South Africa appeared before the UN committee earlier this week.

Public participation and consultation is fundamental to our constitutional democracy — the immediate release of the Bill is therefore essential and obligatory.

Michelle du Toit is an independent researcher who worked with Saapa on its submission to the UN

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