Drink ads debate begins to flow – Vincent Maphai argues against

2012-08-11 15:09

To ban or not to ban booze advertising: does economic common sense trump real social affliction?

Supporters of a ban on alcohol advertising justify their position on grounds such as the prohibitive social and economic costs of abuse, and that advertising affects the youth by “normalising drinking in different settings”.

The proposed advertising ban will, we are told, result in lower alcohol consumption and, more importantly, reduce alcohol abuse, which we all agree is a problem.

Scientific opinion on these issues is not uniform and it creates an opportunity for both sides to be selective in the evidence they employ to advance their positions.

This tendency is worrying if evident among those who peddle their doctrines from disarmingly respectable academic positions. And this explains why industry critics who adopt this prohibitionist approach are opposed to engaging with the liquor industry.

Fortunately, when the scientific community is divided over an issue, logic and common sense become powerful tools. Approximately 70% of South Africans do not consume alcohol and of those who do, a minority are at risk of abusing it.

It is this minority we must channel our focus on, not the overwhelming majority who consume in moderation.

According to a recent study, notwithstanding that advertising spend rose to R1.53 billion last year from R247.2 million in 1999, over the corresponding period average per capita consumption declined to 5.13 litres from 5.46 litres.

Advertising has minimal, if any, impact on those who have taken the position not to consume alcohol.

And this explains why, despite decadesof exposure to alcohol advertisements, many prohibitionists still do not consume alcohol.

International research shows that a ban on alcohol advertising has not led to any significant decline in consumption.

In India, for example, prohibition is theoretically incorporated as one of the “directive principles” of that nation’s constitution, and advertising of alcoholic and tobacco products has been banned since 1995.

Yet India is the fastest growing alcohol market in the world.

Demonising alcohol can hardly be based on scientific evidence.

It is a religious or ethical option and should have no place in a secular society such as ours.

Ironically, one of the few areas of consensus within the medical and scientific community is the potential health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.

Prohibitionists are oblivious to the well-documented social and economic consequences of a total ban, contending that only public-health issues should be taken into consideration.

Such a one-dimensional approach flies in the face of reality.

Policy formulation typically involves choices and trade-offs.

There are other contending values of national importance, including black economic empowerment and job creation.

Proposals from the prohibitionists impact on all of these.

For example, the greatest beneficiary of a total ban would be the South African Breweries (SAB), with established brands and a sophisticated route to the market.

No rational and new player would enter the market where they cannot advertise their products.

The impact on sports and jobs is also significant – the loss of R600 million in sports sponsorship and R2 billion in advertising revenue will cost about 2 500 jobs.

And in this economic climate, other sponsors and advertisers will not be as readily found as some suggest.

Alcohol abuse is problem and warrants a collective effort by all society.

Although it is confined to a minority in society, the harm caused is disproportionate.

Advertising promotes a choice between brands and should be aimed specifically at adults who have made the choice to consume alcohol.

Also, there is a lesson to be learnt from the HIV/Aids pandemic South Africa faces. For years, energy was spent on mutual recriminations between the government and civil society, resulting in the growth of the pandemic.

And only after society had been rallied behind this social disaster did progress emerge.

The same principle applies to alcohol abuse.

» Maphai is SAB’s corporate affairs and transformation executive director

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