Alcohol abuse costs SA’s taxpayers R300bn or more a year

2015-02-01 15:00

South Africans have a huge drinking problem. We are the biggest boozers in Africa.

As consumers of more than 5?billion litres of alcohol every year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks us at number four on a list of countries with the riskiest drinking patterns.

This classifies us as heavy drinkers who binge on a minimum of five beers or glasses of wine in a single sitting for men and more than three drinks for women.

The heaviest drinkers – prone to alcohol poisoning and the deterioration of vital organs – are the citizens of Kazakhstan, followed by Mexico and Russia.

The reality, though, is South Africa’s drinking problem is killing the nation and has an adverse effect on the economy.

» Take our quiz and find out if you have an alcohol problem

The latest research from the Medical Research Council (MRC), which has been published in the SA Medical Journal, indicated South Africa lost about R300?billion in 2009 as a result of alcohol abuse.

About R38?billion of that was used to deal with the socials ills associated with the harmful use of alcohol.

These included deaths, illnesses, disabilities, unintentional injuries that included road traffic accidents, as well as crime.

The government has spent R18?billion on responding to crime alone, the largest cost incurred by taxpayers as a result of alcohol abuse.

Healthcare services received the second biggest bill (R12?billion), followed by social welfare, at R397?million, according to the MRC study.

However, Dr Richard Matzopoulos, the lead researcher behind the MRC’s recent report, believed these figures were an underestimation and the problem was getting worse.

“The effects of harmful use of alcohol in South Africa are very bad and are crippling the economy,” he said.

If nothing was done, he said, “it will continue to have a harmful effect and further entrench inequality and marginalisation of communities affected by alcohol”.

Matzopoulos attributed this to the alcohol industry prioritising profits derived from irresponsible drinking – at the expense of the nation.

But Dr Osborn Mahanjana, chief executive of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use did not agree.

Although he acknowledged South Africa had a drinking problem, he said: “It’s not everybody who drinks alcohol who abuses it. Like any other thing, when you overindulge in alcohol it will be bad for you.

“That is why, as the industry, we continually promote responsible drinking and certainly do not put profit before people,” he added.

Mahanjana referred to the latest WHO statistics, which suggested that the responsible drinking message was indeed reaching some consumers.

The figures suggested 40% of South Africans drank alcohol but only 10% abused it.

“This is not to say that, as the industry, we are not concerned or worried about the level of alcohol abuse and the social ills associated with it,” he said.

But Matzopoulos has continued to criticise the responsible-drinking concept, saying “it is a simple ploy to associate drinking with a positive connotation, while demonising those who don’t drink responsibly or can’t handle their drink”.

“What simply needs to happen is to get people to drink less alcohol. But it’s also important to get people to binge less frequently (no more than two drinks at a time) and to have less when they binge (six beers, not 12),” he said.

South African women topped the list of heavy-drinking females in Africa. The WHO reported that 41.2% of local women were binge drinkers, followed by Burkina Faso (36.8%), Mozambique (32.8%), Nigeria (32.9%) and Zimbabwe (20.3%).

Mahanjana said binge drinking remained the biggest concern.

“We can’t have people drinking the way they do because we know that, when it happens, social ills will certainly follow. Alcohol is meant to be enjoyed moderately.”

The bottom of every bottle

‘I enjoyed the attention’

Xolie Langa stole sips of home-brewed sorghum beer her grandmother sold. By the age of 12 she was hooked on alcohol.

“I used to sing and do all sorts of funny things when I was tipsy. People used to laugh; I thought it was cute; I enjoyed the attention,” she says.

Langa then moved to the US and became a “seasoned drinker” after being introduced to cider, wine and other liquor.

Research indicates many adult drinkers start by stealing sips from their parents’ drinks. For some, sips turn into glasses, and glasses into bottles.

Langa, who works for a media company in Sandton, is now a moderate drinker – her binge-drinking sessions with friends at clubs are now a thing of the past.

She’s also had an 18-month dry spell, for health reasons.

‘I was in denial’

Dinesh Pillay thought family and friends were crazy when they asked him to stop drinking. His wake-up call came when he lost his job as a debtors clerk at a law firm and his wife and children left him.

“I was in denial,” he says. “I thought I was in control and my wife was just nagging and cramping my style because she lived off my salary and was unemployed. We would argue about my drinking problem and arguments soon turned violent,” he adds.

He was fired after a series of warnings for absenteeism on Mondays and month ends. He also came to work drunk. He cashed in his retirement savings and blew it all on booze. The family started going to bed hungry and Pillay drank even more. But then he sought help at a local rehabilitation centre and has now been sober for three years.

“When I see alcohol, I am tempted to drink – but I remind myself I am coming from the dark and do not want to return to it.”

Pillay and his wife have reunited and he is now working on contract jobs.

‘I just love my drink’

Every time Tara Weber goes on a drinking spree she wakes up feeling like she has been hit by a bus, then a truck, before being run over by a train. But she has no plans to quit.

“I don’t think I can ever stop. Drinking alcohol is part of my social life and I can’t imagine what I would substitute it with if I were to stop now,” she says.

She dismisses suggestions she may have a problem.

“I just love my drink; that’s all. Besides, I drink occasionally and, in most cases, it’s because I’m out socialising with friends or family.”

Though she considers herself a social binge drinker who sometimes overdoes it, Weber says she hasn’t reached the stage where she needs professional help. “My partner, who was a nondrinker, once told me I drink too much, but he was the only one.”

They broke up. But she says she’d love a teetotaller for a partner because she’d have someone to take her home safely after weekend drinking sprees.

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