SA’s lockdown alcohol ban assessed

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The two-month ban on the sale of liquor brought SA’s alcohol sector to its knees, writes Katharine Child in the Financial Mail. But some form of increased regulation seems necessary.

The two-month ban on the sale of alcohol spelt ruin for many of the 1-million people who rely on SA’s alcohol sector for their livelihood, according to industry figures. The number includes producers, bottlers, distributors, shebeens and 540 high-end wine estates. Seventy percent of those wine farms would not have been in a position to pay salaries in July, if the sales ban had continued.

Days before the ban was lifted, large alcohol industry players warned: “With no or minimal revenue for eight weeks … the industry cannot sustain the ban any further and job cuts are a harsh reality.”

Prof Sithombo Maqungo, head of the orthopaedic trauma department at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital, tells a different story about the alcohol ban. He says less drinking and fewer drunk drivers on the roads in April and May meant a 60% reduction in patients at the hospital’s trauma unit.

The industry, however, says the problem is not quite so straightforward. It points to reduced trauma admissions in countries where alcohol sales were not banned as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. And, it says, factors such as fewer cars on the road, closed factories and workplaces as well as fewer social gatherings also need to be taken into account.

Prof Ken Boffard runs the state-of-the-art trauma unit at Joburg’s Netcare Milpark Hospital, linked to Wits University. The unit tests the blood of each of its patients for alcohol and drugs. He says those tests find that 60% of car accident victims (including pedestrians) “are over the legal driving limit, or are under the influence of drugs”. Those figures match numbers cited in a 2014 SA Medical Journal report.

Dr Mike West, a psychiatrist who specialises in addiction, says: “The origins of alcohol misuse can be traced all the way back to the arrival of the Dutch settlers, who would pay the indigenous inhabitants in alcohol. During apartheid, unlicensed shebeens … were seen as a way of rebelling against laws that prohibited black people from consuming alcohol.”

The cost to the country is enormous. In a 2013 study published in the SAMJ, SA Medical Research Council researcher Richard Matzopoulos tried to calculate the societal cost alcohol abuse. He put the tangible cost at about R37.9bn, or 1.6%, of 2009 GDP. Intangible costs, such as loss of life and emotional costs, amounted to 10%-12% of GDP, a figure often cited by the anti-alcohol lobby.

At the same time, the alcohol industry also pays its dues. The industry says it pays R51bn a year in tax, including VAT, sin tax and customs levies.

As things stand, the lockdown liquor restrictions may be undermining adherence to the law. A tavern owner working near Benoni says that she is considering giving up her legal trading licence. If she trades legally, it will take her two months to sell R30,000 worth of alcohol — the amount she previously sold in a week. It’s also not easy competing with the cheaper homebrews that have become common, since hard lockdown.

Prof Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drug Research Unit at the SAMRC, has for years argued for fewer alcohol outlets, as well as a ban on alcohol advertising except at the point of sale. He also proposes a reduction in the size of beer servings, as well as a zero-alcohol, or almost zero-alcohol, limit for driving.

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