Legislation is not always the answer

Alcohol abuse is an undeniable challenge in South Africa.

In truth, there are people who drink excessively.

The levels of underage drinking have become unacceptable.

Alcohol abuse and excessive drinking can lead to societal issues such as violence, accidents and fatalities on the roads, foetal alcohol syndrome, to name but a few.

As the alcohol industry, we undeniable have a role to play in ensuring our products are consumed by those legally allowed to, and in moderation.

As an industry, we fully support the aims, objectives and the spirit of the Liquor Amendment Bill and will continue to support initiatives to reduce excessive alcohol intake and its effects on the health of the nation.

READ: Why drinking age of 21 will be bad for SA

We do, however, believe that there are certain aspects of the bill that require further interrogation as they may have unintended negative consequences, not only for the wider alcohol industry, but for other industries that work with the liquor industry.

During the Eastern Cape Liquor Summit recently, the minister of health said that the alcohol industry wanted South Africa to be a country of drunkards.

This could not be further from the truth.

The industry does not benefit nor rejoice when a product created for enjoyment and social get-togethers is used irresponsibly. Excessive drinking is a risk to the sustainability and growth of all our businesses.

No alcohol industry player would encourage binge drinking for short-term gain.

Rather, we stand united against irresponsible consumption of alcohol.

One such example is how the alcohol industry has made an upfront investment of R150 million as an initial outlay to a fund aimed at actively promoting education programmes focused on awareness of irresponsible consumption of alcohol.

While government is yet to decide on whether it will join us in intended planned initiatives, the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) is hedging on with strategic initiatives as we can no longer wait.

The proposed Liquor Amendment Bill has once more highlighted the need for all role players to join hands in dealing with the challenge of alcohol abuse.

While there is unfortunately no one-size-fits-all solution or approach, tackling this problem requires a collective, concerted effort from multiple players including governments, nongovernmental organisations, consumer groups, police forces, legislators, retailers, hotel, bar and restaurant owners and community groups.

Collaboration is in my view key, for we all have a role to play in turning the tide.

The bill has been designed to discourage excessive alcohol consumption and proposes a number of interventions to control both access to alcohol and exposure to alcohol advertising.

These include the extended liability clause, increased legal drinking age and outlawed advertising.

The extended liability clause proposes a principle called “extended liability”, which seeks to hold manufacturers, distributors and retailers responsible for all alcohol-related harm and damage caused where alcohol is consumed.

The bill also holds manufacturers and distributors liable for products found in illegal outlets.

It cannot be legal to hold a compliant manufacturer or distributor that sells its products to legal (licensed) outlets or for an entire industry to be held accountable and liable for the decisions and actions of illicit outlets or for individuals who are deemed responsible and mature by law for their actions.

Proving causal link for liability will certainly clog our constrained legal justice system for years.

We do, however, believe that continuous engagement is necessary to constructively address this issue in a manner that can be effectively managed by all parties.

Key to the solution is enforcement to curb illegal traders and for industry players to be held accountable if proven that they sell to illegal outlets.

The second proposed clause is to increase the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 to further address concerns of underage consumption.

All above 18 but below 21 can only consume small amounts of alcohol under the supervision of a parent or religious leaders.

The bill will, however, allow persons under the age of 21 to work in the alcohol industry or serve alcohol in licensed outlets.

Challenged enforcement ability is at the centre of this proposal, as are the legal grounds of raising the legal drinking age to 21.

In our country, one is deemed to be fully personally responsibly at 18 by law – which comes with responsibilities and rights, such as the right to vote.

Next to that, we would be one of the only countries in the world with a legal drinking age of 21.

The root causes of underage drinking and alcohol abuse will not be adequately addressed by this law, but rather serve to further frustrate an already clogged legal system.

READ: SA's R300bn booze burden

The bill also proposes to outlaw advertising or presence on various platforms including social media, cinemas, theatres, online or the internet, with time-based restrictions on TV and radio.

This will deny the industry an opportunity to use its brands to promote moderate drinking.

In a country already beleaguered by high levels of youth unemployment, outlawed advertising will pose a serious business challenge to the advertising and media industries with inevitable job losses, not to mention stifle burgeoning small business owners such as legal taverners and distributors.

The industry has proposed reasonable measures such as gated social media access being legislated to ensure that no under 18s have access to liquor adverts, and movie cinemas and theatres already have controls in place to ensure that those under the legal drinking age are not exposed to alcohol advertising.

The ARA code provides various feasible alternatives that not only adhere to enforcing responsible advertising, but also present a solution to protect jobs in various sectors, while allowing new entrants to the industry such as entrepreneurs who are starting to dominate the craft beer space, to stand a chance to not only grow, but also remain economically active.

There is no one sector that can win the challenges of irresponsible consumption by itself. And legislation cannot be the solution to all challenges.

We all have a role to play and should collaborate for the benefit of all our people and communities.

Velleman is Heineken SA’s corporate affairs director

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