The South African government implemented life-saving temporary alcohol sales bans during COVID-19 in three periods. The success of each of the policy is documented well in its direct and positive effect on reducing alcohol consumption and thus reducing alcohol-related trauma cases presented at hospitals in South Africa. This immediately freed up urgently needed hospital facilities, capacities, and services to care for people infected with COVID-19.
But the global alcohol corporation AB InBev, through its subsidiary SAB Miller, took legal action against the live-saving temporary alcohol sales bans. First they legally challenged the temporary alcohol sales bans during COVID-19 to try and overturn them. When that failed the beer giant didn’t stop but instead filed a lawsuit claiming the bans were unlawful and had no force and effect.
When SAB Miller challenged the temporary alcohol sales ban implemented in June 2021 via urgent application, it was dismissed by the Western Cape High Court and then the Supreme Court.
But the alcohol giant did not drop the case and used its deep pockets to continue its relentless push against this life-saving alcohol regulation during the pandemic in South Africa. The beer maker again filed an application at the Western Cape High Court against the temporary alcohol sales ban declaring that regulations 44 and 86 promulgated by the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on December 29, 2020, were unlawful and had no force and effect.
SAB went so far as to call the temporary alcohol sales bans unconstitutional because they “denied the fundamental constitutional rights to trade freely and human dignity.” SAB claims the temporary alcohol sales ban eroded livelihoods. The company argued that the executive’s use of its powers under the Disaster Management Act (DMA) to ban alcohol sales temporarily infringed on the rights of tavern owners, shopkeepers, brewers, and others in the alcohol trade value chain disproportionately.
SAB launched this lawsuit on January 6, 2021, and did not drop it even after the temporary alcohol sales bans were lifted in South Africa in early February 2021.
On May 20, 2022, The Court, in a two-to-one decision, dismissed SAB’s application against the temporary alcohol sales bans during COVID-19 in South Africa.
The Western Cape High Court held that these regulations, which prohibited the sale, dispensing, and distribution of liquor during 2020, were necessary for assisting and protecting the public and addressing other destructive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, notably the collapse of the health system.
In the majority ruling written by judge Rosheni Allie and concurring with judge Judith Cloete, the court stated the following:
- The minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma proved that the regulations (temporary alcohol sales bans) represented the least restrictive means of achieving the purpose of immediately freeing up hospital facilities and services to people infected with COVID-19.
- The minister showed that these regulations had a direct effect on the link between alcohol consumption and trauma cases presented at hospitals.
- The minister proved that creating and implementing these regulations were rationally connected to the DMA’s statutorily mandated purpose of saving lives and livelihoods and to the constitutional mandate of upholding the right to life and the right to adequate health care.
SAB Miller’s relentless pursuit against South African alcohol policy making
Since the South African government implemented the life-saving temporary alcohol sales bans during COVID-19 SAB Miller worked against the measure.
As Movendi International reported, first SABMiller challenged (via an urgent application) the temporary alcohol sales ban implemented in June 2021 with the Western Cape High Court. When the Western Cape Court dismissed the challenge, secondly SABMiller turned to the Supreme Court to appeal the challenge. But the Supreme Court denied SAB leave of appeal.
Not stopping with legal battles, Big Alcohol deployed tactics from the Big Tobacco playbook to muddy the science regarding the effectiveness of the temporary alcohol sales bans.
The success of temporary alcohol sales bans and the potential for alcohol policy in South Africa
The success of the temporary alcohol sales bans is documented in research analyzing the trauma case volume from Worcester Regional Hospital in South Africa. The results showed that:
- There was a 59 to 69% decrease in trauma volume between the no-ban and alcohol sales ban 1 period.
- Trauma volume dropped again by 39 to 46% with the temporary alcohol sales ban 2.
- Partial bans on alcohol sales were not effective in reducing trauma volumes.
Policymakers and civil society are learning key lessons from the South African alcohol policy experience during the pandemic. Two key lessons emerged from this experience:
- The necessity of countering alcohol industry arguments.
- 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.
- 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 alcohol industry used alternative facts and figures, which can be countered with the real facts.
This is the perfect window of opportunity for the South African government to invest in long-term alcohol policy solutions, such as the Liquor Amendment Bill, to build back better after COVID-19.
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.
The time is right for South Africa to prioritize alcohol policy to benefit the people and cmmunities.