The alcohol industry has released a statistical analysis to support their argument that the reduction of trauma admissions during the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown could not be primarily attributed to the banning of alcohol.
The analysis sought to draw attention to other factors, including curfew, which has been mainly cited, to be considered and not for the focus to be on alcohol, saying it was not the only thing on which restrictive measures were imposed during the lockdown.
Several reports were released and experts’ opinions heard on the significant reduction seen in the number of trauma admissions to health institutions throughout the country, citing the restrictions or bans on alcohol as contributing factors.
“Reported drops in trauma admissions coinciding with alcohol bans have resulted in a common acceptance of the belief that alcohol consumption makes an outsize contribution to trauma cases and places an intolerable burden on our health system.
The conclusion that banning alcohol has a causal relationship with a drop in trauma cases is flawed, because the alcohol bans were implemented at the same time as restrictions on mobility such as lockdown, curfews and limits on gatherings,” said the SA Liquor Brand Owners Association (Salba) chairperson, Sibani Mngadi.
“It is therefore not possible to disaggregate the effect of the alcohol bans from the impact of these measures, along with the disruption caused by the virus and the simultaneous drop in contact crimes.”
In July 2020, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize spoke emphatically, mirroring alcohol consumption and restrictions around it to the number of trauma admissions.
“A study by [the director of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the SA Medical Research Council, Professor Charles] Parry and others shows there was a 60% to 70% reduction in trauma admissions because of the lockdown at that time ... conversely, when the alcohol restrictions were lifted during level 3, facilities reported up to 60% increase in trauma emergency centre admissions and up to 200% increase on trauma admissions,” he said.
However, Mngadi was not in agreement with this as he cited curfew as one factor that should be looked at.
“The 60% drop in trauma admissions recorded in South Africa during the first lockdown, which included a ban on alcohol, is mirrored in countries around the world that also went into lockdown but didn’t ban alcohol sales.
Deeper analysis shows that curfew restrictions are statistically significant in their association with a drop in trauma cases,” he said.
The chairperson of Salba said they were expecting findings contained in the released analysis to be “contested, debated and, in some quarters, rejected out of hand” adding that they were “confident that our research is rigorous and can stand up to scrutiny”.
“Our concern, as the industry, has been the reliance on weak data and personal opinion to justify decisions that have far-reaching implications for our struggling economy.
By releasing this analysis to the public, we are hoping to kick-start a transparent discussion on approaches to managing the pandemic and the harms associated with the abuse of alcohol. We would like to partner with government and civil society to find and implement evidence-based solutions to the real challenges in our society,” he said.
Financed by alcohol producer and marketer Distell, the analysis, led by independent data expert Ian McGorian of Silver Fox Consulting in collaboration with Professor Mike Murray from the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, is titled A deep dive into the relationship between trauma admissions and lockdown measures during the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa.
It is argued in the analysis that “the fact that trauma admissions have decreased in countries with no alcohol bans during lockdown clearly infers that other lockdown measures, apart from alcohol restrictions, are instrumental in causing trauma admissions to decrease”.
“Such counterfactuals further weaken the government’s case that it has been alcohol restrictions that have been the main driver in decreasing trauma admissions.
One cannot simply ignore the counterfactual that countries that did not impose alcohol bans also experienced a significant reduction in trauma admissions after lockdown implementation,” the analysis read.
“The evidence may appear compelling at first blush, but fails to address an effect no less important, namely that the alcohol restrictions coincided with other restrictions that may also have had an impact on trauma admissions.”
Meanwhile, the analysis received support from other stakeholders in the alcohol industry value chain, who also expressed their views against the alcohol ban.
The National Liquor Traders Council convener said they did not believe an alcohol ban was the answer, even at the time when Covid-19 was shattering the country, its people and the economy.
“This analysis clearly shows the need for a more balanced approach. We have worked with the liquor industry to put in place a number of initiatives to reduce the harm caused by alcohol abuse, and ensure compliance with Covid-19 protocols and liquor licence conditions among traders,” he said.
“We have asked for improved enforcement of regulations relating to alcohol sales, including strict adherence to licence conditions and amendments to the regulations to address the lack of enforcement of Covid-19 regulations. We firmly believe that these alternatives are important and will go a long way towards helping prevent the spread of Covid-19, while protecting livelihoods.”
The group chief executive of Distell, Richard Rushton, expressed the industry’s commitment towards curbing Covid-19. “We are all on the same side, and we want to help find solutions. We are very clear that alcohol abuse is unacceptable and causes harm. Our view is that the focus must be on finding ways to deal with high-risk drinkers, rather than using blunt instruments that penalise all South Africans. Any proposed new regulations need to be evidence-based, be rational and target problem areas.”
The analysis was also welcomed by the glass manufacturing giant, Consol.
“This in-depth analysis is most welcome given the devastating impact the alcohol bans have had on companies across the alcohol supply chain, including Consol. The glass industry has lost several billion rands in turnover and production during the alcohol bans and has only recently recovered to pre-Covid-19 levels,” said Consol chief executive Mike Arnold. “It’s constructive to have an informed and objective basis to determine how we can proactively and better support the government to halt the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The department of health is yet to react to the analysis which was only released on Thursday morning.