During the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa effectively used alcohol availability limits to ease the pressure on the healthcare system. The country implemented multiple short-term alcohol sales bans. The country’s Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition has now said that information collected during those temporary alcohol sales ban on alcohol harm trajectories has highlighted the need for further improving the Liquor Amendment Bill.
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 in effect.
The success of these measures also depicts the heavy burden caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry in South Africa and the urgent need for improving alcohol policies.
The South African experience with alcohol harm and alcohol policy responses during the pandemic sparked increased conversation in the country about the need and case for improving alcohol policy solutions. High-ranking ministers and leaders of other organizations expressed broad support for the Liquor Amendment Bill. However, despite the increased focus during the pandemic and earlier public discussions in the previous five years on the need to give alcohol policy the priority it deserves, no progress has been made so far.
The Liquor Amendment Bill
The Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016 seeks to amend the National Liquor Act of 2003. The amendment was proposed after the Act was reviewed in 2015 and found to be inadequate and inconsistent with the World Health Organization’s Global Alcohol Strategy. Some of the measures included in the amendment were as follows:
- Restricting advertising of alcohol on public platforms;
- Alcohol advertising ban on radio and television at certain times and on billboards less than 100 meters away from junctions, street corners, and traffic circles.
- Increasing the legal age for alcohol use from 18 to 21 years;
- Regulating specific trading days and hours for alcohol to be distributed and manufactured; and
- Placing liability on alcohol retailers and manufacturers for harm related to the contravention of regulations.
The bill was approved by Cabinet for public comment in 2016 but never progressed beyond this stage. It has been on hold since 2018. The Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition is now saying they plan to reintroduce the bill to parliament after making improvements.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became more apparent that the problem of liquor is quite huge in South Africa and requires more concerted measures, and that the Bill may not address the scale of the problem as the problem requires a concerted effort in government,” said Bongani Lukhele, Spokesperson, the Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition, South Africa, as per Ground Up.Bongani Lukhele, Spokesperson, Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition, South Africa
However, communities are concerned that the continued delay in adopting the bill will increase health, social, and economic harms caused by alcohol products in South Africa.
The overall cost to society of such harm will continue to burden the state and divert resources from other delivery areas. Some specific consequences are that petrol stations are now applying for licenses, something they would not be able to do if the bill were passed,” said Maurice Smithers, director of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in South Africa, as per GroundUp.Maurice Smithers, director, Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance South Africa
Big alcohol interference in South Africa
Big Alcohol lobbying and policy interference are the main reasons for the delay in adopting the amendment bill and improving alcohol policies in South Africa.
The strategies used by Big Alcohol to weaken alcohol policies in South Africa were clearly visible during the pandemic. An analysis revealed the strategies used by the alcohol industry:
- 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.”
Alcohol policy improvements help prevent and reduce alcohol harm and resulting costs to South African people
Onesisa Mtwa, innovation manager at the DG Murray Trust says improved alcohol policy solutions are needed to prevent and reduce alcohol harms in South Africa.
She further highlights the gains of adopting the Liquor Amendment Bill reported in a 2017 impact study by Genesis Analytics. The study found that the Bill could reduce alcohol consumption by between 3.2% to 7.4% in South Africa and reduce public health costs by R1.9-billion per year.
As WHO data shows the total per capita alcohol consumption in South Africa in 2016 was 9.3 liters. This is high above the average for the WHO African region. Males over 15 years who consume alcohol have a per capita alcohol intake of 37.5 liters which is extremely high. The harm caused by this high level of consumption in the (male) population is evident in the 12.4% of males who suffer from alcohol use disorders in South Africa.
In 2016, in South Africa alcohol caused:
- 3466 deaths due to liver cirrhosis,
- 3614 deaths due to road traffic injuries,
- 2673 deaths due to cancer.
It is clear that improved alcohol policies are needed to protect South Africans from the harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. The Liquor Amendment Bill in its current form has the potential to significantly reduce this harm. That’s why communities are expressing concern that the Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition’s move to further delay and improve the Bill could unnecessarily delay the process and further increase alcohol harms.