Moderation, not prohibition, is the answer

By Patricia Pillay

This opinion piece was first published on Fin24 on 17 September.

South Africa is emerging battered and bruised from the national lockdown of our economy. But, while we may have weathered the initial Covid-19 storm, we now find ourselves navigating our way through unchartered waters.

As we forge ahead, we need to make sure that we learned the valuable lessons from the lockdown. Was the initial hard lockdown necessary to get the public health system ready? Absolutely. Was it necessary to restrict movement and economic activity to the extent that we did? Probably not.

Take the case of the beer industry, for example. The alcohol bans had a devastating impact on the beer industry, with an estimated 7 400 jobs lost, R14.2bn in lost sales revenue and more than R7.4bn loss in taxes and excise duties.

The bans have forced South African Breweries to cancel R2.5 billion in capital and infrastructure upgrades this financial year; it is currently reviewing a R2.1 billion planned spend for 2021. Heineken South Africa has also halted plans for a R6 billion brewery expansion in KwaZulu Natal, which would have created 400 new jobs.

As the CEO of the Beer Association of South Africa, I have a duty to protect and promote the industry in a responsible manner. And, in doing so, I am the first to acknowledge the devastating impact that alcohol, if abused, can have on society and communities.

However, if we are to eradicate the harm caused by alcohol, it important that we understand and diagnose the problem correctly.

It is true that our country has developed an unhealthy culture of drinking to excess, particularly at weekends. However, contrary to popular perception, South Africa is not a nation of drinkers. In fact, most people don’t drink at all.

According to Dr Glenda Grey and Prof Charles Parry at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), only 43% of South African men and 20% of women drink alcohol. This means that more than half of men and four out of five women do not drink alcohol at all.

The real problem then that we face is that the minority of people who do drink tend to consume excessively large quantities of alcohol. In doing so, they regularly pose a danger to themselves, their families and those around them, for example road-users. They also place a huge strain on our public health system.

If we are going to alleviate the harm that excessive drinking causes to our society, we need policies that explicitly target this culture of excessive drinking. It is no good demonising an entire industry or restricting the freedoms of those that enjoy a drink in a responsible manner.

And yet this is exactly what is happening. The full 14 week ban on alcohol trade was justified on the basis that alcohol itself was a social evil that required eradication in its entirety.

Despite the move to alert level one on 21 September, limitations on the trade of alcohol have remained. Businesses serving alcohol on their premises may only do so until the midnight curfew and outlets may only sell alcohol for off-site consumption from Mondays to Fridays between 9am and 5pm. There is no sign from government as to when these restrictions will be lifted, so there is uncertainty from  businesses as to when they can once again sell alcohol in terms of their licensing conditions.

There is also insufficient evidence that continued restriction on legal trade and consumption will have the desired effect. As we have seen from the earlier levels, people who abuse and drink alcohol to excess on weekends will find a way to do so regardless of these restrictions.

While the intention behind the alcohol restrictions may be noble, the unintended consequences are devastating and far-reaching.

The weekend ban on alcohol sales, if maintained, will lead to many more job losses at a time when government is doing all it can to get people back to work and rebuild the economy

Prohibition also enables the illicit alcohol market, which currently accounts for 15% of all alcohol sales by volume, resulting in a fiscal loss of R6.4 billion per annum. I would imagine that Minister Mboweni could find many useful ways to utilise this money in the country.

Driving problem drinking underground also makes it more difficult to regulate. Underground drinking poses a number of risks, including increasing the prevalence of underage drinking, increased levels of interpersonal violence and crime in and around unlicensed, illegal outlets, and scant observance of social distancing measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

We do need to fight alcohol abuse, but we need to do so in a way that specifically tackles the problem of abuse. And we need to think through all the possible unintended consequences – some policies (like outright bans, for example) may exacerbate rather than remedy the problem.

With the prospect of a ‘second wave’ of Covid-19 infections likely, there is a chance that government may decide to go back to a hard lockdown and, with it, back to total prohibition. We, as the Beer Association, believe this would be a grave mistake.

Instead, we need to learn the right lessons from the previous hard lockdown. This means acknowledging the impact of prohibition on our economy, and finding ways to curb the excessive drinking that causes social harm.

One important way of doing this is to inculcate a culture of moderate drinking and devising policies that influence people to make better choices. The Beer Association is prepared to work with government and any other stakeholders to this end. The beer industry is already working with government and other social partners at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) on a social compact to address the underlying societal issues linked to alcohol abuse and to encourage all South Africans to drink in moderation.

And we have already started our work to promote moderate drinking and position beer as the drink of moderation. We believe that beer is ideally placed for this because of its relatively low alcohol content by volume, and because our members offer a range of lower alcohol and no alcohol products to consumers. In this regard, beer manufacturers have committed to further increasing the percentage of no and low alcohol products in their portfolios.

We can, and we must, fight against alcohol abuse – but we must also recognise that excessive drinking and the harm it causes will not be stopped by prohibiting or limiting the trade of alcohol. It is critical that government and the industry moves forward as partners and devises sustainable solutions that encourage citizens to responsibly exercise their choices and consume alcohol safely and in moderation.

Pillay is CEO of the Beer Association of South Africa, which brings together the Craft Brewers Association, Heineken South Africa and South African Breweries.