Will the new policy proposals stop alcohol abuse?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Government’s proposal to increase the legal age at which a person can drink alcohol, from 18 to 21 years has sparked mixed reactions from various sectors of society.

Neo Semono digs deep into the challenge of alcohol abuse among the youth.

The Department of Trade and Industry’s (dti) new National Liquor Policy proposals were published for public consultation in May.

The proposals follow concerns that there has been a significant increase in the consumption of alcohol among the youth. Authorities say this high alcohol consumption among the youth sets in place high consumption patterns and related problems for them going into adulthood.

“Amongst the youth, studies have revealed the consumption of liquor [happens] at very early ages, even to the extent of binge drinking. According to research, children as young as 13 consume alcohol in South Africa,” says Deputy Director General at the dti Zodwa Ntuli.

As the country commemorates Youth Month throughout June, the perception that alcohol abuse is high among young people is no doubt a serious concern.

Studies have shown that the younger a person starts drinking, the more likely they are to experience problems from heavy drinking at a later stage.

Concerns regarding alcohol abuse have not only been raised by the dti, but also by President Jacob Zuma, who has declared alcohol and drug abuse as enemies of South Africa’s freedom and democracy.

In his Youth Day address in 2013, President Zuma noted that alcohol abuse not only has harmful effects on the body, but also results in increased levels of conflict in the family, violence,  sexual violence and high risk sexual behaviours, among others.

 “Alcohol and drug abuse in particular, are slowly eating into the social fibre of our communities,” he said.

The President urged the youth to fight the scourge of alcohol and drug abuse with the same vigour that apartheid was fought.

According to the 2nd South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey 2008, the Western Cape, Gauteng, Free State and North West reported the highest alcohol consumption rates by the youth.

The proposal to raise the minimum alcohol drinking age comes at a time that studies have shown that raising the minimum age for drinking alcohol decreases single vehicle night time crashes involving young drivers.

According to a report by the Medical Research Council (MRC), South Africans consume about 5 billion litres of alcoholic beverages per year.

Government’s proposal to raise the minimum alcohol drinking age is supported by the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication (SCIHDC).

The SCIHD is a non-governmental organisation and the largest social change communication project in Africa.

“We do support it as there is evidence from the US  and Japan that deaths from road traffic accidents  in this age group [18-21] drops by 30% when the drinking age is increased,” said SCIHD Senior Manager : Advocacy Savera Kalideen.

“ We also support it because there is evidence from New Zealand that as the brain continues to develop until the age of 24.5, the harm caused by having even a few episodes of binge drinking  causes permanent changes to more than 10 areas of the brain,” says Kalideen.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says one out of three South African drinkers drink excessively with males consuming 32.8 litres of pure alcohol per annum compared with under 20 litres per annum on the continent.

According to Ntuli, alcohol abuse not only has an impact on the health of the country’s citizens but also on the economy.

 “With the existing challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty, the scourge and prevalence of alcohol abuse increases the strain on the economy,” she says.

South Africa’s alcohol consumption legislation, says Ntuli, allows for trade in liquor products but within certain parameters taking into account the benefit to the economy and the harm that can be caused by the products.

“This is a delicate balance that government must monitor and ensure that the effects do not outweigh the benefits. This means that with harmful products like this, trade must be conducted in a socially responsible manner.”

The law requires that industry put in place measures to deal with the harmful effects of alcohol.

“While industry has implemented certain programs towards this, our assessment has shown that this is inadequate and not very effective. South Africa faces a worrying prevalence of liquor abuse,” says Ntuli.

So how is the government planning to reverse this trend?

“We propose to increase capacity to monitor implementation better; assist industry to adhere to trading conditions and get regulators to increase cooperation on this to bring about impact. The industry codes of good practice should be able to complement government effort by monitoring this requirement as part of the trading conditions,” explains Ntuli.

The age increase proposals state that licensees’ managers or any other person dispensing liquor at the premises where alcohol is served must take steps to ensure verification of the age of the person that alcohol is being sold to. If the person appears to be under the age of 21, the licensee should request an identity document, passport or driver’s license before selling alcohol to that person.

The proposals state that it should be an offence for liquor to be sold to a person under the age of 21.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the costs of alcohol abuse in South Africa to be at $1.7 billion and 2% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2004.

Another proposal made in the new policy is that liquor premises be located at least 500 metres away from schools, places of worship, recreational facilities, rehabilitation or treatment centres, residential areas and public institutions.

The policy also proposes that alcohol not be served to intoxicated people adding that should alcohol be served to an already intoxicated person and that individual is involved in a motor accident or crime related to substance abuse, the manufacturer, distributor and trader should bear liability for any harm or damages.

It also proposes that liability for manufacturers and suppliers be introduced to ensure that they take responsibility not to supply their products to unlicensed traders.  

And the SCIHD believes the policy proposals offere a way forward to regulating the harmful use of alcohol.

“The proposals are critical as they offer a way forward for regulating the harmful use of alcohol in the country.  The current cost of alcohol related harm has been estimated at R37.9 billion per annum or 1.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and this requires action on the part of government,” says Kalideen.

Ntuli says if the proposals are passed into law, government would do all it can to ensure successful implementation.

She adds that the contribution and proposals of all departments, including the departments of health, police, education and social development have been factored into the proposals.

Stakeholders and interested parties have until 13 August 2015, to comment on the proposals.-SAgovnews.gov.za