SUPPORT FOR ALCOHOL SALES RESTRICTIONS
ALCOHOL is a legal drug and classified by the International Agency for Research on Alcohol as a group 1 carcinogen linked to 7 cancers, road crashes and interpersonal violence. As a professor of Community Medicine and Health Care at the University of Connecticut, Thomas Barbor has noted, alcohol is, therefore, ‘no ordinary commodity’ and requires effective regulation.
Consuming alcohol is a choice. Within a democracy, the choice is a fundamental right. But democracy also comes with basic rules of governance and all businesses, whether they sell alcohol or not, should be required to follow basic business rules such as having a business license, a health and safety certificate with opening and closing hours and paying taxes. Government made the right choice to ban the availability of alcohol.
The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA) South Africa supports increased restriction of alcohol availability in line with the World Health Organization Global Strategy to Reduce Alcohol Harm of 2010 as a means to reduce alcoholrelated health and social harm. 171 people die every day due to alcohol. Alcohol attributable harm costs South Africa between R246 and R280 billion annually.
SAAPA SA supported the government’s decision for three key reasons. Firstly, most people access alcohol where they live, from shebeens which are too small to promote physical distancing and do not have running water or ablution facilities to ensure hygiene.
Secondly, the well-documented binge drinking culture in SA results in the intoxication that has been shown to impact on inhibitions and judgement, which could lead to drinkers not following Covid-19 protective measures. It is also the norm for drinkers to share drinking bottles and glasses, which again would make them vulnerable. Thirdly, the health system needed to be ‘freed’ up. Prior to Covid-19, as much as 30% of hospital admissions were alcohol-related.
Alcohol availability would, therefore, have taken people out of their homes, going against the very message of ‘Stay Home’ in the attempt to contain the virus.
The ban on alcohol sales has shown benefits and valuable lessons for regulation. The health system has had fewer alcohol-attributable hospital admissions. For example, Groote Schuur Hospital has reported 66% fewer trauma admissions. According to statistics released by the Minister of Police on April 25, 2020, there was a reduction in contact crime i.e. attempted murder cases from 1300 to 443, rape cases from 2908 to 371, assault GBV cases from 11 876 to 1758 and domestic violence cases by 69.4%. While these positive outcomes cannot be fully attributed to the ban on alcohol sales, it has contributed significantly.
Covid-19 also highlighted a festering problem long ignored by the government as a whole and its enforcement agencies. There are too many liquor outlets in general and a large number of illegal outlets in residential areas selling alcohol 24/7, making life for residents intolerable. Thus, shebeens and taverns have become part of ‘township culture’.
A 2017 study in Khayelitsha, commissioned by the Western Cape government, found 1045 outlets, of which only 11% were trading legally, with people living within
3- 5 minutes walking distance from their nearest alcohol outlet. Research shows that easy access to alcohol encourages consumption. The government has demonstrated that it can take action in the interest of public health.
The police have shown that they can enforce liquor laws – although they need training in restraint, in people management, and in respecting human rights. The provincial liquor authorities have revoked the licenses of those who contravened the State of Disaster regulations. Most importantly, South Africans have said they need alcohol to be better regulated.
It cannot be business as usual with regard to harmful drinking and its negative impacts. The gains made in creating an alcohol safe South Africa during this period need to be held and we implore the government to seize the moment and adopt the Liquor Amendment Bill.