South Africa was one of the countries which used alcohol availability policy measures during the COVID-19 pandemic to effectively ease the pressure on their healthcare system exerted by alcohol harm. The South African government accomplished this via temporary alcohol sales bans. The bans reduced alcohol availability in the country and in turn decreased alcohol harm.
The government implmented the bans to reduce the mounting pressure on hospitals during the pandemic by bringing down alcohol-related trauma cases. This enabled the hospitals to focus more resources and personnel to comabt the ongoing pandemic.
The temporary alcohol sales bans were widely successful in easing the alcohol burden on South Africa’s healthcare system. The success of the temporary alcohol sales bans was documented in research analyzing the trauma case volume from Worcester Regional Hospital in South Africa.
The results showed:
- 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.
Additionally, South African police reported a reduction in violence, crime and violent deaths when the temporary alcohol sales bans were introduced.
The success of the temporary alcohol sales bans gives the South African government the perfect opportunity to implement long-term alcohol policy solutions.
In fact, since the success of the temporary alcohol sales bans, discussion about alcohol policy development picked up in South Africa. The Liquor Amendment Bill has recently received wide-ranging support from high-level ministers and various organizations. But the increased attention during the pandemic and previous public debates in the last five years about the need to make alcohol policy the priority it should be have not yielded results. The government has not taken further steps to formally introduce the Bill, yet.
Big Alcohol lobbying against alcohol policy development in South Africa
One major reason behind the delay in adopting the The Liquor Amendment Bill and the lack of proper alcohol policies in South Africa is the political interference of the alcohol industry.
The Conversation analyzed 142 online news media articles from News24 and SABC News Online to identify the major actors and their strategies during the temporary alcohol sales bans in South Africa.
They identified that the South African government and the alcohol industry were the most prominent actors represented in the media. News24 predominantly reported on alcohol industry-oriented actors and perspectives. SABC News was more government-oriented.
The Conversation’s analysis identified that the alcohol industry approach was cohesive and well coordinated. The industry presented a consistent message through a range of avenues, including:
- Lobbying political parties and representatives,
- Litigation against the government,
- Muddling evidence on the benefits of the alcohol policies, and
- Proposing policy alternatives.
Furthermore, alcohol industry actors used emotive language and framed their arguments as if the regulations were affecting small businesses. The industry was found to “repeatedly cite large – and often untested – figures of profit and job losses.”
The government’s stance could be improved according to The Conversation analysis. The government assumed a defensive stance and while relying on evidence, the government lacked a cohesive message.
Academics from the South African Medical Research Council had a strong voice in countering Big Alcohol’s propaganda with empirical evidence. They presented policy solutions for a post-COVID world.
However, the media portrayed a polarized view of the temporary alcohol sales bans in South Africa. The alcohol industry messaging received prominent attention.
2 Lessons for future alcohol policy development
From the analysis, two lessons can be learnt for future alcohol policy development.
1. Necessity of countering industry arguments
The industry’s aggressive lobbying against the temporary alcohol sales bans revealed the influence the alcohol lobby has over alcohol policy making in South Africa. The delay of adoption of the Liquor Amendment Bill is an example of Big Alcohol’s interference in public health oriented alcohol policy development. Therefore, it is crucial that alcohol industry lobbying and its propaganda in the mass media is countered effectively to provide a comprehensive picture about alcohol policy in South Africa.
2. Evidence, advocacy and cohesive policy
It is important that empirical evidence is used to advocate for necessary alcohol policies such as the Liquor Amendment Bill. The industry used uncited facts and figures, which can be countered with the real facts.
Communities are already calling on the South African government and requesting to implement the Bill.
The Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016 proposes evidence-based policy measures to tackle South Africa’s alcohol problem, including:
- Increasing the legal age for alcohol purchase to 21 years;
- The introduction of a 100-metre radius limitation of alcohol trade around educational and religious institutions;
- Banning of any alcohol sales and advertising on social and small media; and
- The introduction of a new liability clause for alcohol sellers.
A collective voice by civil society, advocates, academics, politicians and other public health actors, can bring forward implementation of the Bill. There are already several champions working towards better alcohol policy solutions in South Africa. The Bill will have wide ranging benefits for the South Afican peope and as the citizens have seen the benefits from the temporary alcohol sales ban, now is the perfect time for a stronger call to adopt the Bill.