The temporary alcohol sales bans in South Africa were implemented by the government to curb the spread of the virus and to alleviate pressure from alcohol harm on the emergency and healthcare system. Through reducing alcohol availability alcohol-related trauma and hospital admissions were reduced and alcohol-centric social contexts as coronavirus super-spreaders were avoided during the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Three temporary bans were implemented:
- the first from March 27 to June 1, 2020,
- the second from July 13 to August 17, 2020 and
- the third from December 28, 2020 to February 2, 2021.
All three alcohol sales bans led to substantial reductions in alcohol harm specifically in hospital trauma cases, road traffic accidents and violence and helped to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Professor Steve Reid, Head of the Directorate of Primary Health Care at the University of Cape Town, examined several key elements of success of these three temporary alcohol sales bans.
- The bans have effectively reduced the pressure on the healthcare system, including front line health care workers. This was particularly true over the New Year. Normally trauma units were full over the New Year due to injuries and accidents caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. The temporary alcohol sales bans greatly reduced this pressure.
- Fewer people died of alcohol-related trauma during the temporary alcohol sales bans as per a new study conducted during the first ban. The results were repeated with the second sales ban.
As a result of the success of these temporary alcohol availability reductions to prevent and minimize population-level alcohol harm, the South African government is now considering improving alcohol policy solutions permanently.
Three key measures are on the agenda for consideration:
- Raising the legal age limit for alcohol purchase/ consumption (currently at 18 years),
- Banning alcohol advertising, and
- Better mechanisms to track unlicensed alcohol sales.
Alcohol industry deploying the tobacco industry playbook
Despite the gains in public health and safety and protecting many lives during the ongoing pandemic, Big Alcohol aggressively opposed these measures from the beginning. Both, Big Beer and Big Wine took legal action against the alcohol sales bans in efforts to protect their profits.
Now, as the government is considering alcohol policy solutions beyond the pandemic, the alcohol industry has deployed the tobacco industry playbook to sow doubt about the effectiveness of the temporary alcohol sales bans during COVID-19.
In early April 2021, a report funded by the alcohol industry was released called “A deep dive into the relationship between trauma admissions and lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa: A high-level overview”.
Using the tobacco industry playbook, the authors have positioned the paper in the grey area between a peer-reviewed paper and an opinion piece for the public.
The report does not have the scientific integrity to be accepted in a peer reviewed journal, but is too statistical to be aimed at the public. Essentially it is neither. Which suits the alcohol industry’s goal of creating doubt about the effectiveness of South Africa’s COVID-19 alcohol availbility regulation measures.
The public relations playbook adopted by the tobacco industry in 1953 to counter medical evidence against smoking is ubiquitous,” wrote the Daily Maverick.
Its key worth is that it can be easily (and dangerously) marshalled against any global cause or issue – smoking, sugar, fossil fuel, climate science, alcohol, Covid-19 lockdowns, gun control… It is inspired in how it uses the very strengths of science – curiosity, scepticism, doubt – against science itself ”Daily Maverick
As the Daily Maverick analysis exposes, Big Alcohol’s report uses four tactics from the tobacco industry playbook:
- Manufacture and create doubt at every opportunity
- Stresses the idea that the link between the reduced trauma cases in hospitals and temporary alcohol sales is a “theory” or that scientific causality has not been established. There are ways to determine causality even during a pandemic when it is almost impossible, but the industry only wants to create doubt, not proof.
- Do not fear facts – even if they make you look bad
- Cherry picking data, such as “total percentage of cases where alcohol has been confirmed” instead of using actual direct and indirect harms of alcohol to South Africa which is approximately R277 billion, or between 10% and 12% of GDP. This subtly muddies the data and understanding. Also use spokespeople to blame the consumers and avoid responsibility for the harm caused by the alcohol products by framing it a “choice”.
- Use friendly ‘white coats’ and scientists as your allies
- The report was authored by “an independent data expert and two academic statisticians”, to make it seem objective; the alcohol industry involvement was hidden.
- Avoid declaring interests
- Alcohol industry involvement in the report is hidden. It is not declared that the alcohol industry funded the study nor that one of the authors is a prominent member of a lobby group that campaigns against lockdowns. Since a conflict of interest declaration is not made, readers can not even assess it.
The alcohol industry using the tobacco industry playbook is not a new strategy. In fact one study published in the European Journal of Public Health found that the alcohol industry and related organizations have increased funding for public health and researchers. This allows alcohol companies to exploit a ‘transparency loophole’ as many people assume these organisations are charities and don’t realize the connection to the industry.
Another study published in The Milbank Quarterly found that alcohol industry CSR organizations use dark nudges and sludge, which utilize consumers’ cognitive biases, to promote mixed messages about alcohol harms and to undermine scientific evidence.