Fighting the harmful effects of alcohol

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

By Dr Ntombifuthi Nala

Many South Africans thrive on celebrations, whether it is a national accomplishment such as winning the Rugby World Cup, or a personal achievement such as passing an exam. These celebrations are often accompanied with dancing, singing and of course alcohol.

While alcohol is a means of celebrations and enjoyment, it can be open to misuse or abuse that can lead to the destruction of lives.

Every year the lives of 3 million individuals are lost due to alcohol, representing 5 per cent of all deaths. This is worrisome in South Africa where alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive substance and high levels of binge drinking and associated harms prevail.

In characterising the challenge, Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, stated that “alcohol is one of the most abused substances that causes the most harm to the most people in our country”.

Alcohol abuse not only harms the health of an individual by affecting their vital organs and increasing susceptibility to life threatening diseases, it also jeopardises the safety, well-being and lives of others.

In searching out solutions to reduce alcohol-related harms and best practices for regulating alcohol, South Africa recently hosted the Global Alcohol Policy Conference (GAPC).

This is the first time that the conference was held in Africa, which brought together policy makers, academics, representatives of community-based organisations and NGOs from across the globe.

The conference made strong inroads in the formulation of a global alcohol policy that protects children and vulnerable adults. It also engaged on how further the regulation of alcohol marketing could help fight the abuse of alcohol.

During the conference Minister Zulu committed to reviewing the Liquor Amendment Bill which seeks to strengthen regulations on alcohol trading, marketing and sales. The bill put forward strong interventions which includes increasing the legal age of drinking to 21 and introducing an increased radius limitation for the trade of alcohol around educational and religious institutions. It also places liability on alcohol retailers and manufacturers for harm resulting from contravening regulations.

These proposals are important in advancing our fight against alcoholism, particularly in curbing access for young people as one in three teenagers are addicted to drugs and alcohol in our country.

The plight of underage drinking and non-compliance with alcohol-related laws were recently brought to the fore at the Enyobeni tavern tragedy that resulted in the loss of 21 young lives.

In strengthening our efforts to address the challenges caused by alcohol and substance abuse in the country, the Department of Social Development has drafted a policy framework on the Prevention of and Treatment for Substance Use Disorders, which will soon be gazetted for public comment. Cabinet also recommended an inter-Ministerial Committee for prevention, reduction and treatment strategies for alcohol and substance abuse.

Whilst government strives to reduce alcohol-related harms by reinforcing our laws and developing new strategies, we urge South Africans to be responsible citizens by adhering to current legislation.

The National Liquor Act prohibits the sale of alcohol to anyone under the age of 18, which calls for the co-operation of parents, community members, and liquor outlets to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children.  

Establishments with liquor licences must perform verification checks against identity documents to ensure a person is of the legal age to consume alcohol. These checks are essential, especially as pens down parties, rage festivals and a host of social gatherings will occur as exams come to an end and the festive season approaches.

South Africans are urged to act responsibly this festive season should they choose to consume alcohol, and to always say no to the use of drugs. Excessive alcohol intake is widely linked to an increase in accidents, violent behaviour, fights and domestic violence.

Alcohol abuse is one of the main contributors to crime, especially gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa. We ought to make it our duty to report incidents of GBVF, alcohol–related and other crimes, to law enforcement authorities.

Reducing alcohol-related harms requires the combined efforts of everyone. When we do our part by practising responsible drinking and adhering to our laws, we can celebrate without putting our health, safety and the lives of others at risk.

*Dr Ntombifuthi Nala, Director: Research and Knowledge Management at the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)