During the COVID-19 pandemic governments have had to take bold, distinct decisions to protect people’s lives. For example, the South African government, facing mounting alcohol industry pressure, implemented four temporary alcohol sales bans. There remains no doubt now that the temporary bans were effective, specifically in reducing trauma cases at hospitals. Reducing alcohol availability lead to easing of the high burden on the South African healthcare system during the ongoing crisis.
The fourth temporary alcohol sales ban was lifted recently when the country moved down to level 3 lockdown. From September 13, 2021 the country moved further down to level 2 lockdown and alcohol availability limits were further weakened. Accordingly, off-premise alcohol outlets are allowed to open from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday through Friday. On-premise alcohol outlets such as bars and restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol as per license conditions till 10:00 PM all seven days of the week.
The Science of temporary alcohol sales bans
Temporary alcohol sales bans work by reducing the availability of alcohol. When alcohol is less available the harms caused by alcohol products decrease. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization advised governments to restrict access to alcohol during lockdowns to protect people and curb virus spread.
Alcohol policy solutions play an important role in protecting citizen’s health. A ground-breaking report illustrated the lethal interaction between alcohol industry products and practices with the coronavirus pandemic.
- Alcohol products increase health and societal problems arising from the pandemic. For example, alcohol weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to coronavirus infections. And alcohol-centric social contexts have often become COVID-19 super spreader events.
- Alcohol products increase the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the pandemic.
- The alcohol industry exploits the pandemic to change alcohol laws to their benefit such as through weakening delivery and take away laws.
Benefits of temporary alcohol sales bans in South Africa during COVID-19
By now the effectiveness of reducing alcohol availability with temporary sales bans has been well documented. For instance, a research study analyzing the trauma case volume from Worcester Regional Hospital in South Africa found:
- There was a 59% to 69% decrease in trauma volume between the no ban and the temporary alcohol sales ban 1 periods.
- Trauma volume dropped again by 39% to 46% with the temporary alcohol sales ban 2.
- Partial bans of alcohol sales were not effective in reducing trauma volumes.
Apart from the drop in trauma cases in hospitals, South African police saw a reduction in violence, crime and violent deaths when the temporary alcohol sales bans were introduced.
Similarly, a return of alcohol harm was seen every time the temporary sales bans were lifted. Crime statistics for the first quarter of 2021/2022 showed significant increases in crime alongside lifting of the temporary alcohol sales ban.
Obstacles posed by the alcohol industry
The pressure by the alcohol industry on the South African government regarding the temporary alcohol sales bans has been incessant. Disregarding the lives saved by these measures both Big Beer and Big Wine took legal action against the South African government. Not stopping there, Big Alcohol deployed tactics from the Big Tobacco playbook to muddy the science regarding the effectiveness of the temporary alcohol sales bans.
Big Alcohol and their lobby groups were happy with the latest weakening of alcohol availability rules, but continue to find fault with the South African government and complain about loosing their profits, ignoring the heavy loss of lives from the pandemic and their own products.
The Beer Association of South Africa (Basa) and the South African Liquor Brandowners Association (Salba) continue to complain. The major point of argument by alcohol industry groups is threats of job loss for people working in the industry. There is, however, no evidence given to prove these claims. In fact, the alcohol industry opened even more alcohol outlets during the pandemic, which calls into question their claims of lost revenues and threats to jobs.
Salba claims the single day extension “imposed unnecessary restrictions” on the alcohol industry and requested a return to ‘normalcy’, disregarding that the old normal meant severe alcohol harms burdening people and communities.
And despite the permission to make alcohol more available, the Basa group already warns against any new alcohol availability limits. But a fourth COVID-19 wave is looming inn the beginning of December as the vaccination campaign is slow. The government might need to take new decisions to curb the coronavirus through alcohol policy solutions.
Need to prioritize alcohol policy solutions in South Africa
For some time now Big Alcohol has been making in roads in the African region. For the alcohol industry, the growing middle class and young population in the region is another market to be captured. The industry interfered in alcohol policy making in the region and exploits the lack of of weak policies.
The success of the temporary alcohol sales bans in South Africa renewed political interest in improving alcohol policies in the country.
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.
These are all measures which are included in the Draft Liquor Amendment Bill of 2017. While there is wide political and community support for these alcohol policy improvements the pressure from the alcohol industry has so far blocked the adoption of the bill.
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.
A report by Vital Strategies exposed 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.
It is precisely because of such industry tactics that alcohol policy solutions are important now more than ever in South Africa and the wider African region. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has depicted the obstacle alcohol poses to countries and development. Only with alcohol policy solutions can governments stand against alcohol industry pressure and protect their citizens from the harm caused by products and practices of the alcohol industry.
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