Will stricter legislation on alcohol make a difference?

2012-06-25 00:00

DRINKING is a national pastime. South Africans take it seriously, but not its effects.

Earlier this year, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini called for stronger measures against alcohol, suggesting a bill to raise the legal drinking age to 21. Predictably, there has been an outcry.

While the draft bill to raise the age for drinking is still in the cupboard, the move to ban alcohol advertising is more imminent.

Speaking in Pretoria last week, members of the Social Protection and Community Development Cluster said that the draft bill on the ban on alcohol advertising would be submitted to the cabinet before the end of this year. Other draft bills concerning the legal age to purchase alcohol and the licensing of shebeens will also be submitted for consideration.

Dlamini said substance and alcohol abuse are among the ever-increasing challenges facing the youth globally and in South Africa.

“Alcohol remains the most common primary drug of choice across the country and it results in risks, including accidents, injuries, teenage pregnancies, as well as unprotected sexual behaviour, which leads to HIV transmission,” said Dlamini.

“We have spoken to industry and made it clear that our first priority is the health and safety of South Africans.

“Our government recognises that alcohol and substance abuse constitute a serious threat to health and development. This undermines our ongoing efforts to build safe and healthy communities,” she said.

In South Africa, there is a connection between alcohol and substance abuse, gender-based violence, criminal activities such as gangsterism, money laundering, human trafficking, foetal alcohol syndrome, road carnage and family disintegration.

Alcohol ranks third in the country’s burden of disease and disability, after unsafe sex and interpersonal violence. It’s a factor in 29% of driver injuries and more than 47% of driver deaths.

Dlamini said she will address concerned parties about the bill before it is presented to Parliament and she will also invite the public to comment. But big stakeholders in the alcohol industry say their concerns have been ignored.

Public affairs consultant to the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) Adrian Botha told The Witness: “We have not been consulted at all, nor asked to make submissions. To my knowledge, nothing has been formally released from the government.

“We believe that simply raising the drinking age will not have the desired effect without enforcement, and that the government should rather enforce what is internationally acceptable as the preferred drinking age limit, which is what we currently have.

“If the problem is that 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds are drinking, how will raising the legal age to 21 achieve anything? It also does not make any logical sense. At 18, a person can be married, have children (or abortions), sign contracts, join the army and kill for the country because they are considered an adult, but they cannot have a glass of wine — it’s ridiculous.”

Caro Smit of the organisation Sadd (South Africans Against Drunk Driving) was more supportive of the proposal. “I think putting the drinking age up to 21 is excellent in that it will also alert parents to the fact that excessive alcohol is bad for developing brains.

“At 18, the human brain is not fully developed. Teenagers tend to binge drink (when they consume five units within two hours). These shooters and “down downs” make them very drunk quickly and the damage is immense.

In South Africa we unfortunately have many parents who let their children drink from a young age, not knowing they increase the chances of their children becoming addicted.

“Teens drive drunk, girls get raped and lives are lost when alcohol is abused,” said Smit.

Sadd tries to affirm children who do not drink and encourages them not to bow to negative peer pressure. Smit believes that if the legal age is raised then children may start drinking later, not earlier like they do now.

Lin Geber, executive director of uMgungundlovu Sanca (South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) agrees but has misgivings about the bill.

“We have seen research that shows that if you can delay the age when teenagers start drinking it is beneficial and they are less likely to become addicted.

“But realistically, we doubt that raising the age will have any real benefits because it is the enforcing of the law that is the real issue. We have many young teenagers who are below the existing 18-year age limit who manage to get alcohol.

“Clearly, the existing laws are not being properly enforced. Our statistics show that 25% of the people we see for alcohol addiction are below the age of 17. We wonder what the government hopes to achieve by raising the age limit ... enforcement of existing laws can do more.”

In the United States, there have been various studies looking at the legal drinking age of 21. The consensus is that students drink alcohol on the quiet, still managing to buy it and consume it. The law serves only as a deterrent. Most states in the U.S. have introduced alcohol education programmes to coincide with driving education lessons. This is to drive home the gravity of drunk driving.

When Manto Tshabalala-Msimang instituted her anti-smoking measures, smokers got hot under the collar and perhaps the dry measures Dlamini plans will have drinkers toasting her demise. The question is: will more restrictions have the desired effect?

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