SA has the highest alcohol consumption rate in Africa and one of the highest in the world. Considering only 38% of the population drinks alcohol, these stats are impressive — or depressing. A staggering 17l of pure alcohol is consumed on average by every South African drinker annually. To tackle this problem, and others, the government aims to raise the legal drinking age to 21 and has issued the National Liquor Amendment Bill for public comment.

SA also has the highest rate of alcohol-related road deaths, with up to 58% of them attributed to drinking and driving or drinking and walking. The World Health Organisation’s Global Status Report on Road Safety for 2015 says road traffic fatalities are the most common cause of death of people aged 15-29 years.

The South African Medical Journal says alcoholism among the youth is a particular concern, "given that at least half of SA’s population are categorised as young people under 35 years".

Surveys have shown that there is a tendency to more harmful binge-drinking among young people, who can easily purchase alcoholic drinks from bottle stores, supermarkets, bars, shebeens and other unlicensed liquor outlets that outnumber licensed retailers.

The journal warns that the prefrontal cortex of the brain — which controls reasoning and impulses — takes the full brunt of alcohol abuse and affects adolescent development negatively.

"Less well-appreciated, perhaps, is that the adolescent brain, which is still growing, is especially vulnerable to alcohol’s toxic effects, with risk of cognitive deficits, poor executive functioning and poor long-term memory," it says.

Cape Town-based actor Liso Maqubela thinks raising the drinking age will do little to curb underage drinking. "In America, the legal drinking age is 21 years and once people reach this age, the capacity for alcohol abuse and being arrested rises as a side-effect," he says. "The problem isn’t really the drinking age … statistics show that the majority of adolescents have already tried alcohol anyway."

Declan Williamson, a final-year law student at Rhodes University, says raising the drinking age limit to 21 is unlikely to combat the problem of youthful consumption, largely because of the inability of the police to enforce measures against crime.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies says the bill limits alcohol advertising including a blanket ban on advertising targeting young people. "Any adverts will have to indicate the harmful effects of alcohol," the minister says.

Davies says the societal problems caused by alcohol outweigh its contribution to GDP. Civil liability for proprietors, suppliers and manufacturers who serve alcohol to people who cause accidents or commit crimes while intoxicated would be introduced by the act.

If a flourishing economy such as the US has statistics to show a lower crime rate, significantly fewer foetal alcohol syndrome births and a lower binge-drinking rate with a drinking age limit of 21, it is conceivable that SA can achieve that too.

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