Liquor bill must be embraced

Government’s determination when it took on tobacco is what’s needed to deal with alcohol and its social problems IT WAS deeply disappointing to read in the media recently that the two major political parties have seemingly dismissed proposals in the Draft Liquor Amendment Bill, recently re‐ leased for public comment by the Department of Trade and In‐ dustry (DTI).

Two key proposals were discussed in the newspaper articles: prohibiting the awarding of licences to premises within 500m of a faith-based entity or an educational institution, and raising the minimum legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

We, the South African chapter of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa), agree that the clause proposing the 500m limit needs to be more nuanced and take into account the reality of densified areas, shopping malls and high streets (commercial streets in residential communities, some of which have churches or schools in them or close by). But this is no reason to dismiss the proposal out of hand.

What’s more, to challenge the proposal on the basis that it may “reinforce apartheid spatial planning by forcing liquor Liquor bill must be embraced The Star Early Edition · 11 Nov 2016 outlets out of densely populated areas like Alexandra and Khayelitsha” displays a breathtaking disregard for the people who live there and experience the worst consequences of our under-regulated and poorly enforced alcohol policy environment daily.

A City of Joburg study comparing the availability of alcohol, libraries and recreation centres in two regions – Soweto and environs (Region D), and Rosebank to Randburg (Region B) – revealed that Region D had 50 percent more liquor outlets per capita than Region B, while Region B had, per capita, around four times the number of recreational facilities and libraries in Region D. This means, crudely put, that it’s easier to get drunk in Soweto than it is to engage in a recreational or sporting activity, or to find a book to read.

These aren’t mere statistics. They represent, in stark terms, a major contributing factor to the continuing socio-economic impoverishment of the black community and, as such, an impediment to transformation. What’s more, the challenges faced by the people of Soweto are probably even greater in Alexandra, Khayelitsha, and other townships and informal settlements.

The argument against raising the age of consent from 18 to 21 is equally alarming: “We’re unable to enforce 18; how much money will we need to spend to enforce 21?” This is the voice of public representatives of our ruling parties (both the ANC and the DA are ruling in different spheres of the government), admitting that they are unable to do their jobs.

This is surely one of the worst possible reasons for rejecting the DTI’s proposal. (By the way, the bill introduces a possible solution to the enforcement problem – extending the powers of liquor inspectors to other enforcement agencies. No mention is made of this in the article. Furthermore, organisations like Soul City have been lobbying for years for the creation of community liquor inspectors to be hired by the provincial liquor boards and based in challenged communities to address the lack of enforcement.)

There’s also irrefutable research which indicates that even small amounts of alcohol (four to five drinks a month) are considered harmful to young people under 25 because the physical development of the brain continues until almost 25 years of age. Recent studies have found that brain cells in 18 parts of the brains of teenagers who binge-drink infrequently (four to five drinks at a time once a month) are thinner and weaker with less protective coating, leading to poor, ineffective communication between brain cells. Shouldn’t this evidence make us all sit up and find a way to implement legislation that is designed to protect young South Africans?

There’s no silver bullet that’s going to solve the alcohol abuse problem. It requires a battery of measures which, together, will cause a shift in attitudes and create an environment in which the health priorities of the nation trump the economic interests of a minority.

Several years ago, a Free Market Foundation director stated that “alcohol is an essential part of life”. It’s not. It’s only deemed to be so because children are acclimatised early on, through advertising, peer pressure and the pervasiveness of alcohol in our society, to the notion that drinking alcohol is a necessary and desirable step to take in their journey of life; an inevitable rite of passage, if you will.

That used to be the case with cigarettes until a determined minister of health, in the face of stiff resistance, banned all advertising of tobacco and smoking in public places by introducing amendments to the Tobacco Control Act. Thirty years ago, it was a given that most young people would at least try smoking. Today, that is no longer the case.

The same determination is needed with respect to alcohol, which is impacting on, inter alia, health; HIV rates; road traffic deaths; male-on-male violence; violence against women, including rape and unwanted pregnancies; and industrial accidents and absenteeism – making it a much more dangerous and antisocial drug than tobacco. Fortunately, we have a minister of health and a minister of trade and industry who acknowledge and understand the impact, and are using evidence-based reasoning to draw up forward-looking policies.

The media articles highlight a gap in understanding of what works to change behaviour around alcohol use and abuse. This gap isn’t necessary, as credible information in this regard is easily available. Increasing the minimum drinking age, banning advertising and sponsorships, increasing taxation on alcohol products, and restricting hours of sale and the number of alcohol outlets are among the measures that, together, will begin to make an impact. Anything less is window dressing. Political parties should therefore be demanding that more is done, not rejecting the worthy efforts of concerned ministers and public servants.

If there are obstacles to taking action, for example the perceived inability to enforce age restrictions, they must be overcome with creative solutions – they mustn’t be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo.

Our mandate as Saapa-SA is to give civil society a stronger voice in helping to shape and implement the alcohol policies. This means giving community members – the people affected by the health and socio-economic consequences of alcohol use and abuse – a meaningful say in how the production, distribution and consumption of alcohol is managed.

Members of Parliament would do well to go back to their constituencies and find out what they think about the situation before making their own pronouncements on the matter. Saapa-SA and many NGOs working in the sector would be happy to assist them.

From The Star Early Edition - 11 Nov 2016

© 2023 Soul City Institute