The phrase ‘throats are open’ may well be true now for many South Africans, following the easing of alcohol sale restrictions under lockdown level 1. However, advocates of alcohol policy reforms say the elephant in the room – the country’s binge-drinking problem – is still being ignored.
This, they say, constitutes a missed opportunity by government to take a firm stance and mention plans for reviving the stalled 2017 Liquor Amendment Bill and the 2016 Liquor Products Amendment Bill, in terms of which the distribution and marketing of alcohol products would be better regulated.
Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the easing of lockdown regulations in the country from level 3 to level 1, enabling the sale of alcohol to resume during normal working hours.
Professor Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the SA Medical Research Council, told City Press this week that if the nation failed to learn from the lessons presented during the pandemic about the effects of heavy drinking, “history will judge us quite harshly”.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published data showing that South Africa was ranked fifth in the world for drinking and that, while only 31% of the adult population aged 15 and older drank alcohol, 59% of them engaged in “heavy episodic drinking”, defined as the consumption of “60 or more grams of pure alcohol on at least one occasion at least once a month”
Are we going to see a repeat of what happened in December? Are we going to see a new spike in cases and a possible fourth suspension of alcohol sales in a desperate effort to contain the situation?Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance of SA
Further, the WHO data revealed that South Africa’s drinking population consumed 28.9 litres of pure alcohol per capita per year.
The country with the highest alcohol consumption rate in the world was Tunisia, whose drinking population consumed 33.4 litres of pure alcohol per capita per year.
“We have a problem with heavy drinking as a nation. No one’s saying that nobody should drink – I drink as well. But the problem is that there’s a large proportion of people who drink to the point of intoxication and some of them get into trouble. That’s why our hospital trauma units are war zones on weekends,” said Parry.
“Some countries send their doctors here to get their training on doing surgery in war-like circumstances, because stab and gunshot wounds are overwhelming hospitals during weekends – and alcohol’s a big part of that.”
Last month, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni increased the excise duty on alcohol by 8% and used the opportunity to remind the country that excessive alcohol consumption could have negative social health outcomes.
“We were quite encouraged to see, in real terms, on average a 3.8% above-inflation increase on alcohol tax. But when you look at the amount it works out to in terms of the value-added tax component, it comes to about 15c more for a 340ml can of beer and 35c more for a quart of beer, which is what most people drink. So 35c more isn’t going to dramatically change behaviour, though it’s a step in the right direction,” said Parry.
It’s been shown to be an effective strategy in the UK and parts of Canada – raising the price of standard alcohol to save lives [from accidents and violence caused by overdrinking]. I think it would make a big difference to heavy drinking.Professor Charles Parry
The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance of SA agreed that the increase in alcohol taxes was a step in the right direction, but said that the move to level 1 was “premature”.
The organisation said: “We’re once again entering a period of public holidays – Human Rights Day on March 21 [a Sunday, making Monday a public holiday], four days of Easter in the first week of April, Freedom Day on April 27 and Workers’ Day on May 1. Public holidays are known to be times when people drink a lot. In addition, there’ll be a lot of traffic on the roads over Easter as people go on holiday.
“Are we going to see a repeat of what happened in December? Are we going to see a new spike in cases and a possible fourth suspension of alcohol sales in a desperate effort to contain the situation?”
Parry said that part of the country’s drinking problem was that it sold pure alcohol at less than R5 per standard drink – very cheap in comparison with other nations – and that pricing was one of the tools that could be used to effectively address heavy drinking.
He said that if South Africa could increase the price of a standard unit of alcohol to R7, for example, it would basically raise the price of a quart of beer from R16 to R19. Wine would not be sold for less than R43 per bottle.
“It’s been shown to be an effective strategy in the UK and parts of Canada – raising the price of standard alcohol to save lives [from accidents and violence caused by overdrinking]. I think it would make a big difference to heavy drinking and affect the people who drink the cheapest stuff, so we need to look quite seriously at that,” said Parry.