Alcohol in South Africa

Professor Charles Parry, from the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit of the Medical Research Council of South Africa, proposes that with a few key policy measures South Africa could address their alcohol problem and culture of heavy drinking.

Professor Parry joined alcohol policy experts from around the world at the ‘Reducing alcohol harms: A global perspective’ public forum held in Melbourne during September, hosted by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and the Kettil Bruun Society for Social and Epidemiological Research on Alcohol.

Professor Parry offered insights into what the drinking behaviours are like in South Africa and how it compares to Australia:

“Abstention is very high,” says Professor Parry, “and according to data from national household surveys 44% of males and 74% of females have not consumed alcohol in the past twelve months. I think that’s a slight overestimate, but certainly South Africa sees much larger abstention rates than in Australia.”

The types of alcohol consumed by South Africans is not unlike that which we see here in Australia – with a preference for beer, wine and a growing market for alcoholic fruit beverages such as RTD’s. A key difference though is that about a third of the alcohol consumed in South Africa goes unrecorded, with large proportions estimated to be from home brewed beer.

Professor Parry is concerned by the alcohol intake and the prevalence of binge drinking seen in his country:

“While consumption per capita is not high, consumption per drinker is. It’s about 27 litres of pure alcohol per year. The prevalence of heavy episodic drinking amongst current drinkers aged fifteen and above is in the 20-30% category, whereas in Australia only 10-20% of your drinkers engage in heavy drinking.”

Professor Parry therefore looked at five key policy areas where legislative changes might reduce alcohol problems across South Africa, and spoke of the role which research has played in shaping the climate of each of these political debates.

His proposals included increasing the price of alcohol through excise taxes; the imposition of warning labels on alcohol containers; and introducing alcohol packaging standards to eliminate cheap foil and plastic bags. Another issue very much on their national agenda is the restriction or banning of alcohol advertising, which Parry believes is largely driven by pressure from the global arena.

He also advocates for greater control on the retail sales of alcohol, sharing observations from his own city of Cape Town where this is a contentious issue. Limited trading hours were once in place, and praised by public health experts for their success, but were later repealed as a result of complaints from liquor traders and the South African capital has again extended trading hours.

Professor Parry concluded by highlighting the relevance of both local research as well as evidence from international settings which can be differentially useful in shaping political agendas in the future.

“The liquor industry is increasingly seeking to undermine public health policy by offering competing evidence,” he says. “I believe that countries, states and provinces in local areas would benefit from having their own comprehensive strategies to address alcohol policies.

“We all know that policy is often the product of competing interests, values and ideologies. But from my own experience, what’s often particularly influential in the process is a determined beaurocracy backed up by evidence from both internal and external resources.”

The Kettil Bruun Society Thematic meeting and related events are supported with funding from VicHealth, the City of Yarra, FARE and the Australian Government Department of Health.

Prof. Charles Parry - South African experience with alcohol policies from FARE on Vimeo.

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