You booze, YOU LOSE
Government plans to clamp down on unlicensed liquor outlets and change the legal drinking age to 21
The bottom line is we have a serious and growing problem of alcohol abuse
The liquor industry would have to accept the “consequences” of the use of their product, said minister of trade and industry Rob Davies. Despite that, nothing in the contentious Liquor Amendment Bill was “cast in stone”, he told a liquor industry indaba in Kempton Park this week.
“I would accept that, unlike tobacco, alcohol is not necessarily harmful. This is not trying to prohibit alcohol, but the status quo is not working either.”
The proposed amendments have invited a backlash from the industry owing to some fundamental changes to the way alcohol is regulated.
The foremost change is to make the industry – including manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers – jointly liable for the damage done by unlicensed liquor sales. This liability kicks in whenever anyone who gets drunk at an unlicensed outlet does something harmful.
That includes deaths, injuries or damage to property caused by car accidents, fights or assaults.
If alcohol was involved and if it can be shown that alcohol came from an unlicensed outlet, the people who supplied the outlet can also face fines or imprisonment.
The amendment is designed to choke off the supply of alcohol to unlicensed outlets at the wholesale and manufacturer level by forcing them to more thoroughly monitor their clients.
“You are not supposed to supply unlicensed outlets ... Now you are going to have to care,” said Davies.
By way of example he said that a wholesaler would be incentivised to query customers who buy volumes of booze that cannot possibly be for private consumption, but who cannot produce a liquor licence.
“There are still a significant number of unlicensed outlets. Products find their way there and wholesalers wash their hands of it,” he said.
“In my estimation, this is one of the most important proposals [in the bill]: to shift responsibility back on to the industry,” said Davies.
“We have a situation in South Africa where there are offences under law that are not prosecuted unless there is a policeman sitting right there,” said Davies. “At the moment, the government picks up the tab.” Another major change proposed in the bill is to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.
“I don’t have a personal position on this. There are strong views to be considered,” said Davies.
“It is sensitive and we are testing the public mood.”
The industry was not going to get off by proposing consumer education and drinkers’ responsibility as the answer, he said.
“Some proposals are debatable and controversial – I know that.
“The bottom line is we have a serious and growing problem of alcohol abuse.
“It is not reasonable for you to tell us that the rule will also catch responsible drinkers. The onus is on you to say how it can be done better.
“If there is no better answer, it [21-year limit] will prevail,” he said.
Melvin Freeman, chief director of noncommunicable diseases at the department of health, also addressed the indaba.
“From a public health point of view, 21 makes far more sense than 18,” he said, citing evidence from countries that changed their limits.
He dismissed the popular argument that it is absurd to allow 18-year-olds to vote, but not drink.
“The precedent is gun ownership,” he said.
“The legal age for that is 21.”
Another proposal in the bill that has come under attack is that no new liquor licences be granted to outlets within 500m of schools, churches or houses.
Groups representing township taverns, aided by SA Breweries, have made this a key contention, arguing that this would ban all existing outlets in most dense townships.
The actual bill, however, allows for the continuation of existing licensed outlets within 500m and promises flexibility in dense areas.
“Nothing here says existing shebeens must close,” said Davies.
“We will tweak the 500m for dense areas ... but there are too many outlets – that is the bottom line.”
He added that the bill might be changed to distinguish between restaurants that serve alcohol and outlets that are simply “drinking holes”.
“Maybe we need that distinction,” he said.