Facing heavy pressure from the alcohol industry, the South African government ended its third temporary alcohol sales ban prematurely on February 2, 2021. Previously the country implemented two temporary alcohol sales bans, the first from March 27 to June 1, 2020 and the second from July 13 to August 17, 2020. All three alcohol sales bans led to massive reductions in alcohol harm specifically in hospital trauma cases, road traffic accidents and violence.
Despite the gains in public health and safety and saving many lives during the ongoing pandemic, Big Alcohol aggressively opposed the sales bans. Both, Big Beer and Big Wine took legal action against the alcohol sales bans in efforts to protect their profits.
As experienced before, immediately after lifting the recent alcohol sales ban trauma cases, violence and road traffic accidents all surge. For example Durban, the third most populous city in South Africa, reports a rise in vehicle accidents and domestic violence since the policy change. There has also been an increase in house parties despite gatherings being illegal during the current level 3 lockdown. The Western Cape province reported rising hospital admission due to trauma cases. Gauteng province reported an increase in trauma admissions to hospitals from 180 on February 1 to 500 by the weekend after the ban was lifted.
When you have a situation where we are having to deal with all the alcohol-related problems at the same time as Covid, it’s a massive problem. That is why we have to restrict alcohol. We just need to restrict it when the hospitals are under huge pressure,” said Prof Salim Abdool Karim, ministerial advisory committee co-chair, as per Times Live.
The second reason is for prevention. We need alcohol restrictions in order to reduce the risks for super-spreading events.”Prof Salim Abdool Karim, ministerial advisory committee co-chair
Alcohol policy developments on the table
The government of South Africa is considering improving alcohol policy solutions, as a result of data and experiences gained from the implementation of the temporary alcohol sales bans. Three key measures are on the agenda for consideration:
- Raising the legal age for alcohol purchase/consumption (currently at 18 years),
- Banning alcohol advertising, and
- Better mechanisms to track unlicensed alcohol sales.
In these discussions political leaders have spoken out in favor of alcohol policy development and long-term improvements. For instance, the Co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma has expressed support for all three measures in an affidavit responding to the legal challenge against the alcohol sales ban by SAB Miller. The minister’s response rightly prioratizes South African lives over industry profit interest.
Government takes any loss of life seriously and more so with loss of life that is preventable,” said Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, as per Business Insider South Africa.Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, South Africa
Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma discusses three types of costs suffered by the South African people caused by alcohol. Firstly, there are direct costs such as suffered by the health system, the police and criminal justice system, the unemployment and welfare systems. Secondly, there are social and indirect costs such as unemployment, reduced productivity, reduced earning potential, reduced working years of life. Thirdly, there are intangible costs, which are difficult to measure such as lower quality of life suffered by those who develop alcohol problems, their families and friends.
Policy solutions need safeguarding against interference by vested interests
The solution to reducing this heavy alcohol burden on South African communities is developing better alcohol policy. Cost-effective alcohol policies such as recommended by the World Health Organization’s Best Buy policies and the SAFER package have been proven to reduce alcohol harm and promote health and development. For instance, the South African government would be able invest alcohol tax revenues and the savings from lowered alcohol costs into the development of society and into building back better after the coronavirus pandemic.
The renewal of the South African government’s interest in developing comprehensive alcohol policy solutions is fundamental to address alcohol as obstacle to development. These efforts need to be protected from interference by Big Alcohol’s lobbying groups.
Alcohol industry interference in public policy making is a common strategy employed by Big Alcohol in the African region. For example, in South Africa the Draft Liquor Amendment Bill from 2016 is still not adopted.
A new report by Vital Strategies exposes how governments and development agencies incentivize the alcohol industry, increasing industry profits and reach, despite the death and disability burden caused by alcohol. Confirming such interference, the delegation of the European Union to South Africa was exposed for inviting major alcohol industry front groups and alcohol producers in Europe to jointly interfere in the development of alcohol policy solutions by the South African government.
These types of alcohol industry tactics have derailed and delayed South African alcohol policy development for too long. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought a sharp focus to the magnitude of alcohol harm in communities, to the healthcare system and economy.
[This article was updated on February 15, 2021 as per new information from EWN]
Business Insider South Africa: “Booze may be banned for 18-year-olds because of lessons learnt during Covid-19 prohibition“
Times Live: “Accidents and domestic violence cases spike in Durban as booze ban is lifted“
EWN: “TRAUMA CASES IN GAUTENG HOSPITALS SPIKE AGAIN AFTER ALCOHOL SALES BAN LIFTED“