Sober up: If the state doesn’t do it, who will?

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Government will be bringing our alcohol laws in line with international standards and anyone upset about this hardly matters. Here’s why

The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance welcomes Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies’ decision to bring South Africa’s liquor policy in line with international standards and evidence.

Countries such as France, Australia, Thailand and Britain have introduced a mix of measures to protect their citizens from alcohol-related harm. It is significant that this is happening during Africa Month, when Africa faces an onslaught from global liquor companies.

The direct and indirect cost to government of alcohol-related harm has been established through research commissioned by the department – an estimated R38 billion annually according to the SA Medical Research Council.

Proposed regulations seek to reduce the burden on government and taxpayers. They also acknowledge that the industry cannot regulate itself – neither in marketing nor in the supply chain of alcohol products.

The proposed regulations embrace the key principle that environmental regulation is critical to supporting individual change of behaviour and positively influencing people away from binge drinking and its ultimate effects on society.

Regulating the marketing, availability, accessibility and pricing of alcohol is the key ingredient recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to reduce the negative impact of alcohol on people.

In 2012 there were 3.3 million alcohol-related deaths, and 5.1% of diseases and injuries were attributable to alcohol consumption. About 130 people die in South Africa every day because of alcohol.

Advertising exists to sell a product. Research makes it clear that advertising normalises consumption – how much, where, with whom and when. This is particularly important in relation to young people, who are the most prolific consumers of media messages.

Not that young people cannot think for themselves, but influencing their product choice affects any company’s market share in the future.

Alcohol sponsorship of sport also creates an association between what should be a healthy activity and a product that is harmful to people and communities.

Holding distributors responsible for the supply of unlicensed and thus illegal outlets is in accordance with government’s legal obligations. Illegal activity cannot be allowed to continue. The number of unlicensed outlets may run into the hundreds of thousands, something that is unprecedented and requires drastic measures.

Should we hold the people who give alcohol to intoxicated individuals responsible for any harm they cause others? Is this necessary or practical?

Binge drinking is the norm in South Africa. A recent WHO report rates this country fourth on the list of places with the riskiest drinking. The report says 16% of alcohol consumers in the country are heavy drinkers, and 41.2% of them are women.

Should we increase the purchasing age to 21? Is this outrageous? Moralistic? The fact is young people under 34 constitute more than 50% of the population.

Research indicates 12% of people start drinking at the age of 13. The 2008 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey reported that 23% to 29% of young people between the ages of 13 and 19 had been binge drinking in the month prior to that survey. Young adults were also the most common victims of fatal violence.

From a public health perspective, the proposed regulations aim to protect our youth. Young people may not like it. Alcohol outlets may not like it.

But for how long should we sit back as a society and not act because people may not like it? The big question posed by the new regulations is how we prevent deaths and injury due to alcohol-related road accidents, as well as interpersonal and domestic violence inside and outside premises or homes after excessive drinking?

The state ultimately shoulders the responsibility of this drinking behaviour.

The corporate social responsibility programmes of the alcohol industry legitimise and advertise the industry – but they do not prevent harm or protect anyone.

International experience has shown that levies can raise revenue for prevention and promotional activities. The initiative to establish a fund to address alcohol-related harm is applauded. Increasing the levy or tax on alcohol products can fund educational programming, as well as more research, rehabilitation services and alternative recreational activities.

It is illogical that the same corporations whose products cause the harm can turn around and “educate” consumers on “responsible” drinking. Drug cartels in South America are known to support entire villages and build schools and hospitals. That doesn’t make what they do OK.

It is not about the state playing nanny. If there is no direct intervention to curb easy access to and the excessive use of alcohol, South Africa’s young population will feel the impact for generations to come.

These desperate times call for desperate measures.

TALK TO US: Will government’s proposed measures stop us from being a phuza nation?

Mofokeng is the chairperson of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance, a network of seven African countries that aim to address the challenge of harmonising and accelerating alcohol policy development in the region

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