Can the 6th administration change the youth drinking crisis?


The real power to change the environment that makes alcohol accessible to young people is in the hands of the newly appointed government – in particular the Ministers of Health and Trade and Industry through the introduction of evidence-based alcohol policies and legislation.

During their first 100 days in Office both Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Minister, Ebrahim Patel, should give attention to the regulation of alcohol which has been neglected in the past.

The DTI needs to expedite the adoption of the Liquor Amendment Act of 2017 with speed. This Act proposes increasing the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, the removal of alcohol sales around educational institutions and the regulation of alcohol advertising. Minister Zweli Mkhize’s department needs to ensure the long –overdue release of the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill of 2013 to the public for comment. Cabinet in 2013 made this decision but it has still not been acted on.

Phuza Thursday, Tequila Tuesday and Wine Wednesdays are not just promotions at local pubs and night clubs or hashtags used on social media to create excitement around brands or events. These catch phrases popularise drinking and occupy a space in the social calendars of many young and older South Africans, placing excessive alcohol consumption at the heart of social activities that South Africans participate in daily.

On June 16 we commemorated the 1976 Soweto uprising to pay tribute to youth who stood up against the apartheid government. The day served as a reminder that young people in the country were at the forefront of our struggle for democracy. Youth Month offers an opportunity to take stock of the strides the nation has made in addressing issues facing the youth. There is still a long way to go in addressing the need for education, jobs and health care, among other pressing priorities for young people.

However, it is a necessity for harmful under -age and binge drinking and its negative impacts to be at the top of the agenda! This June 16 public holiday was used by the alcohol industry and retailers as a rallying point for advertising to boost alcohol sales. There was a proliferation of advertising pamphlets targeting youth over the long weekend.

Marketing often sets the trends using   radio, television, sports events, popular music concerts, websites, social media, mobile phones and product placements in movies and TV shows. Popular personalities including Trevor Noah and Chad le Clos are the newest Johnnie Walker ambassadors to encourage alcohol consumption. Media personality and entrepreneur Bonang Matheba in June received the Inspiration and Influence Award at Global Social Awards 2019 held in Prague. Matheba launched her House of BNG MCC Brut and Brut Rosé in March and has always made drinking champagne an integral part of her lifestyle both on social media and in her reality show, Being Bonang.

This kind of marketing glamourises and normalises drinking, and therefore encourages young people to drink. Sports are normally seen as healthier alternatives to alcohol consumption but ironically Chad le Clos is one of the newest Johnnie Walker ambassadors to encourage alcohol consumption. Does the industry really want us to believe that le Clos achieves what he does because he consumes alcohol?

In 2018 the WHO reported that 74.4% of males and 38.4% of females between 15 and 19 years old in South Africa who drinks, binge drink. Binge drinking is when a man drinks more than 5 standard drinks and a woman drinks more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion.

Underage drinking and related harms which include traffic-related accidents and deaths, interpersonal violence, crime, sexual risk taking behaviour, and the resultant burden of all these on the economy are clear and present crises.

Underage binge drinking has a lasting impact on young brains as the brain is only fully developed at around 25 years of age.  Drinking before this age can impair cognitive development and impact on decision making. In addition delaying the onset of alcohol initiation is protective; if an individual is not alcohol dependent by 25, then they are unlikely to become dependent in the future.

Possible reasons for use and misuse of alcohol include peer pressure and a desire to fit in, poor living conditions and lack of alternative recreational activities, boredom, ignorance of alcohol’s harms. The relative cheapness of alcohol products and their ease of access, are issues which can be addressed with increased regulation.

 A 2017 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review found that SA had the seventh-highest binge-drinking rate out of 10 countries, including Britain, Thailand and Australia. Cape Town and Johannesburg were ranked number three and number five in a 2018 Deutsche Bank study of the 50 cities with the cheapest beer. A staggering 171 people die every day due to alcohol related harm. Over 50% of women who report abuse say their partner had used alcohol. South Africa has double the world average for road fatalities, with nearly 60% of drivers testing positive for alcohol.

It is estimated that the total alcohol-attributable harm cost the country R236 billion annually. Health costs account for the highest percentage of alcohol-attributable costs at an equivalent of 5% of the total 2017/2018 health budget (R9.9billion out of R187,5 billion). Road crashes and injuries cost R143 billion annually.

The Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance urges government to take urgent and decisive action to minimize harmful drinking in general and to take steps to minimize consumption among youth in particular. President Cyril Ramaphosa in his delivery of the State of the Nation Address placed great emphasis on making the future work better. He is absolutely right, the youth own the future and Government must do more to decrease harmful alcohol consumption amongst young South Africans.

We join the majority of South Africans who expect President Ramaphosa’s 6th administration  to finally regulate alcohol and make a real difference in the lives of ordinary South Africans.

Maurice Smithers and Aadielah Maker works at the Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance.