South Africa has a good alcohol policy – it just needs to be implemented

Photo: Prem Pal Singh

Since early 2020, South Africa and other countries confronting the Covid-19 pandemic have imposed extraordinary controls over the sale and consumption of alcohol. In South Africa, clause 27(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act allows for ‘the suspension or limiting of the sale. dispensing or transportation of alcoholic beverages in the disaster-stricken or threatened area’, meaning that special restrictions can be imposed during other disaster situations as well.

Controlling the distribution and use of alcohol during a disaster is an acknowledgement that there are risks associated with the use of alcohol, risks not associated with other consumer products. This begs the question: if alcohol is a risk during a situation of a disaster, is it not a risk under normal circumstances as well? The answer, as we all know, is yes, hence the inclusion in the statute books of most countries of legislation specifically aimed at controlling the way alcohol is produced, sold and used.

But why is there a need to impose even stronger restrictions during a disaster situation? SAAPA SA would argue that it is because current legislation in South Africa and elsewhere does not contribute effectively to the goal of an alcohol-safe environment. This means that unmanaged alcohol use is a permanent threat to the health, safety and well-being of all citizens, a threat exacerbated in a disaster situation. The evidence of this can be seen in the number of people who, before the pandemic, died every day as a result of alcohol use, the number of car crashes that were caused by alcohol use, the high levels of alcohol-related violence that existed, especially against women and children, and the general impact on the quality and prosperity of people’s lives. So why not have measures in place to reduce alcohol-related harm permanently?

SAAPA SA and its partners in Southern Africa are all engaged in lobbying for better alcohol policies in their countries and for civil society to have a voice in the framing of those policies. So what is the current situation with alcohol policy in South Africa and how effective could it be in reducing alcohol-related harm?

In 2003, the new democratic government of South Africa adopted the Liquor Act (59 of 2003). This was followed by the adoption of provincial legislation governing the sale and consumption of alcohol, provinces being the government sphere responsible for liquor licensing. Since then, there have been reviews of these laws by, inter alia, national government and the Gauteng and Western Cape provincial governments. The consequence of the national review process was the adoption in 2016 of a new national Liquor Policy. This policy was informed by a number of national and global developments.

In 2010, an Interministerial Committee (IMC) to Combat Substance Abuse was established in South Africa, in part to address the increasing challenges of alcohol-related harm in the country. Also in 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its ‘Global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol’. The strategy called for countries to adopt the three ‘best buys’ of limiting or banning alcohol advertising; reducing alcohol availability; and increasing the price of alcohol. It specifically rejected the idea – touted by the alcohol industry and others – that alcohol harm could be addressed simply through education and awareness and encouraging ‘responsible drinking’. While these strategies had their place, the WHO argued, they would have little impact unless underpinned by effective legislation giving effect to the three ‘best buys’. With the adoption in 2018 of the WHO SAFER strategy, the three ‘best buys’ were supplemented by the addition of two more: to advance and enforce drink driving countermeasures, and to facilitate access to screening, brief interventions and treatment

In 2011, at a substance abuse summit hosted by the Department of Social Development (DSD) in South Africa, 35 resolutions were adopted, nearly half of which were aimed at reducing the levels of alcohol harm in the country. Most of these resolutions aimed to realise the WHO’s SAFER objectives.

In 2015, a proposal for a revised policy which would address ‘challenges that were a direct result of the gaps in the legislative framework that necessitated a focused review’ was circulated for public comment. In September 2016, after extensive public consultation, a new national Liquor Policy was adopted by Cabinet. The policy recommendations were clearly aimed at implementation of the WHO three ‘best buys’, as well as achieving a reduction in alcohol-related car crashes through lowering the blood alcohol content level (BAC) of drivers.

So what does the Liquor Policy of 2016 say? Can it, if implemented, help to limit alcohol harm? Here is a summary of the recommendations of the policy:

  • Restrict alcohol advertising, especially with respect to exposure to young people.
  • Flight counter advertisements which identify the harmful effects of alcohol abuse.
  • Strengthen licensing conditions.
  • Hold alcohol manufacturers and distributors, and unlicensed alcohol outlets selling their products, equally liable for harm or damage caused to or by patrons within or near the unlicensed premises where the alcohol was sold.
  • Disallow serving of alcoholic products to already intoxicated persons.
  • Regulate operating days and hours of alcohol outlets.
  • Raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.
  • Require the presentation of an ID by all those appearing to be under 21.
  • Locate alcohol outlets at least 500m from schools, places of worship, recreation facilities, rehabilitation or treatment centres, residential areas and public institutions.
  • Disallow alcohol licences for petrol stations, premises attached to petrol stations, premises near public transport, and in areas not classified for entertainment or zoned by municipalities for purposes of trading in alcohol.
  • Regulate the density of alcohol outlets – ie the number of alcohol outlets either per area or population.
  • Intensify education and awareness of the harmful effects of alcohol by way of electronic and print media, schools, public health facilities, and community organisations – this will ensure that citizens are empowered to have control over the sale and consumption of alcohol in their neighbourhoods.
  • Ongoing education of manufacturers, distributors and sellers of alcohol to get them to comply with alcohol regulations and avoid irresponsible trading.
  • Increase the price of alcoholic beverages through taxation and other means.
  • Reduce the blood alcohol content (BAC) level of drivers.

These are significant and substantial proposals and the government has taken steps to make (some of) the law through the Road Traffic Amendment Bill of 2015 and the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016. At the time of writing, however, four years after the adoption by Cabinet of the new Liquor Policy, the Bills have not been enacted. Both have been through the first round of public consultation and resulted in revised versions of each Bill. However, neither has been considered by Parliament or subjected to the second round of public comment.

In South Africa, then, there is no need to fight for better alcohol policy. We have one. What we need is for it to be given effect through the adoption of appropriate legislation. The two Bills awaiting farther processing are not perfect, but their enactment would be a significant step forward in our quest for an alcohol-safe country. Furthermore, their implementation could lead to a change in the culture of drinking in South Africa such that, if there were to be another pandemic or state of emergency, there would be no need for additional measures to control the sale and consumption of alcohol.

By Maurice Smithers the Director of SAAPA South Africa.