South Africa: Alcohol Sales Ban Success Shows Potential of Policy Action

The success of the recent alcohol sales ban in South Africa as part of measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 shows the potential of policy action in preventing and reducing alcohol harm in the country. Now evidence and momentum seem to be gathering in support of more urgent, comprehensive action to tackle the South African alcohol burden.

The alcohol sales ban was implemented in South Africa from the beginning of April until June 1st, as part of the government’s public health response to contain the spread of COVID-19 in South Africa. Movendi International covered the developments related to the alcohol sales ban and how it helped significantly reduce alcohol harm in the country in previous news stories.

Alcohol Sales Ban in South Africa: Benefits and Big Alcohol Opposition

During level 5 and level 4 lockdowns in South Africa, alcohol sale was banned and the country saw a dramatic reduction in violence. For example there was an over 60% reduction in contact crimes such as murder, rape and assault. A debate has since unfolded about how much of these reductions were due to the movement restrictions and how much to the ban on alcohol sales.

Examining the reductions in domestic violence provides insight into how the alcohol sales ban has helped to reduce violence in South Africa. In most countries, domestic violence increased along with lockdowns and isolation measures, with victims being trapped in their homes with abusers. However, in South Africa, where alcohol retail was banned during this time, domestic violence decreased by 70%. The number of women seeking assistance at Thuthuzela Centres also decreased by 50%. Since alcohol is known to fuel violence it could be ascertained that the alcohol sales ban acted as a protective factor against domestic violence during the level 4 and 5 lockdowns.

Since lifting of the alcohol ban while confinement is still in force in lockdown 3, reports of violence have increased sharply. As Movendi International reported, hospitals have reported increases in trauma patients which reduced while the alcohol sales ban was in place.

4 Ways to Tackle South Africa’s Alcohol Burden

Reports of domestic violence have also increased and been likened to an “explosion of domestic violence” by Dr David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust, which coordinates the Bumb’ingomso HIV prevention programme in Buffalo City Metro and Amathole District Municipality.

Alcohol use and specifically binge alcohol use is a risk factor for domestic violence. About 50-60% of South African men who consume alcohol, engage in heavy episodic alcohol consumption. Alcohol is an acknowledged factor in the perpetration of more than 40% of rapes. Further, binge alcohol use is strongly associated with interpersonal violence, motor vehicle accidents and risk-taking behaviour.

High-level support for action on alcohol

Given the evident success of the alcohol sales ban in preventing and reducing alcohol harm during the first two pahses of the lockdown, South Africa sees high-level support for determined action to tackle the alcohol burden.

After witnessing dramatic spike’s in alcohol-related harm after the alcohol sales ban expired in lockdown 3, an array of political leaders have spoken out in favor of more action on alcohol harm, including the re-introduction of the alcohol sales ban.

For example, high-profile ANC ministers and organisations have expressed strong support for a prolonged alcohol sales ban, according to The South African reporting.

  • Bheki Cele, the Minister of Policy, is quoted saying: “… my first prize would be that we shut down alcohol – and take the ban beyond lockdown.“
  • Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, has expressed strong support for an extended alcohol sales ban “up to Level 1“
  • ANC Women’s League have rejected the suspension of the alcohol sales ban, “while the country is under a National State of Disaster“
  • Julius Malema, EFF leader, said that “A majority of patients now being admitted to hospital trauma units are drunk, with stab wounds, and some were involved in accidents. We support Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in her attempts to ban the sale of alcohol.”
  • Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng Education MEC, said about alcohol that “This drug is costly, ruthless and should be defeated. It has no value in building a healthy society.“
  • Oscar Mabuyane, Eastern Cape Premier, said: “We had high incidents on our roads, and we had a lot of reports of gender-based violence on the basis that people were drunk. These are issues we are raising to national government for them to see and consider.”
  • Bandile Masuku, Gauteng Health MEC, said “We are very concerned about the relaxing of the regulations with regards to alcohol. We have seen an upsurge in our trauma units from Monday, which was the first day of the sale of alcohol.”
  • Velenkosini Hlabisa, IFP President, said: “The IFP firmly believes that [alcohol] should not be allowed at this level. It should be allowed once we are clear of the extent of the spread of the virus in our country.”

Urgent government action needed to tackle South Africa’s alcohol burden

President Cyril Ramaphosa in his address on June 17 also stressed the importance of curbing alcohol use and related harm.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended alcohol policy best buys provide evidence-based and cost-effective policy solutions which can be used by the South African government to tackle the alcohol burden. These are included in the WHO’s SAFER technical package:

  • Alcohol advertising ban;
  • Increasing price of alcohol through taxes and minimum unit price (MUP);
  • Reducing blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for driving to 0.02%;
  • Reducing availability of alcohol specifically in residential areas by limiting the density of liquor outlets, shorter trading hours, and ending the sale of alcohol in larger containers like 1 liter bottles of beer and 5 liter wine boxes; and
  • Intensifying the availability of counselling and medically assisted treatment for people struggling with dependence.

While it is necessary to address the root causes of domestic violence and violence against women and children such as men’s attitudes and socio-economic factors it is equally necessary to take urgent action to reduce the violence happening right now. Alcohol policy measures mentioned above can reduce alcohol harm such as violence efficiently and cost-effectively.

In South Africa, alcohol causes about 62,000 deaths every year. The alcohol industry contributes to 3% of the South African GDP, but 3% turns negative when the cost of alcohol harm is taken into consideration. Direct costs of alcohol-related crime and injuries amounts to 1.5% of the GDP. When alcohol-related premature morbidity and mortality are taken into account, the net contribution of the alcohol industry goes into negative. Therefore, alcohol does not actually generate any revenue for South Africa.

the alcohol industry costs the country more than it contributes to the economy,” writes Dr. Harison, as per Dispatch Live.

The recent success of the alcohol sales ban in preventing and reducing alcohol harm in South African communities shows the potential of alcohol policy in benefiting society. The evidence seems to be mounting and the momentum seems to be gathering for the government to take more urgent action to prevent and reduce the health, social and economic harm from alcohol to South Africans.