A closed liquor store is shown in the Woodstock district of Cape Town in this January 11 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DWAYNE SENIOR
A closed liquor store is shown in the Woodstock district of Cape Town in this January 11 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DWAYNE SENIOR

It is time to challenge the liquor industry’s claim that “responsible drinking” is the answer to SA’s alcohol problem.

That assumes the problem lies with individuals who won’t control their drink, rather than an industry whose profits depend on excessive consumption. It is a stark reality that more than 80% of all alcohol consumed in this country is by heavy drinkers.

The liquor industry’s reputation has been badly bruised by the ban on alcohol sales, which exposed its huge role in gender-based violence, traffic injuries and homicides. It is now fighting back, propagating the “big lie” that its contribution to the economy is net positive.

It is not. Factor in trauma-related expenses, welfare costs and loss of productivity and lives, and the alcohol industry takes far more than it gives through taxes, tourism and jobs. That doesn’t mean we should try to shut the industry down, but it does mean its costs, which weigh heaviest on poorer communities and women and children, must be reduced and more paid for by the industry.    

The problem is that portions of the liquor industry make their money from heavy drinking and use deliberate strategies to sustain it. These include selling discounted liquor in large containers, punting the comparatively high alcohol-content of “Zamaleks” (Carling Black Label) to “bold, brave and strong” black men, and dumping cheaper liquor into poorer communities. They also zero in on young people aged 18-25 years whose brains are wired for risk-taking and peer pressure, many of whom have little to lose from excessive drinking.

The origins of these practices are steeped in apartheid. In 1928 the pact government of the National and Labour parties stole the manufacturing rights for sorghum beer from black women and established public beer halls for black working men. The revenue generated by beer sales (and later spirits too) was used to build apartheid infrastructure — first, black townships and later the bantustans.

At the same time, unregulated and illegal taverns sprang up across the country. A more toxic mix would be hard to find: heavy drinking promoted by the state to sponsor the Verwoerdian project, and heavy drinking in shebeens instilling a false sense of freedom, all to the benefit of SA Breweries and other distillers of that time. Inevitably, these factors created a vicious cycle of socioeconomic marginalisation and excessive alcohol consumption that persists to this day. No wonder the youth of 1976 criticised the complicity of inebriation and burnt the beerhalls down!

Today, far more black African and coloured men, particularly those who have piece jobs or are unemployed, drink heavily compared to other race groups. Yet rates of heavy drinking among those who have jobs in the formal sector are not substantially different to that of whites. Obviously, it is not the colour of one’s skin but the circumstances of one’s life that tend to determine drinking patterns. The 2016 demographic and health survey found that younger people also tend to drink heavily, with more than 80% of 18-35 year old men who drank alcohol admitting to binge-drinking at least once in the prior month.

That is why appealing primarily to personal responsibility is disingenuous. It ignores the context of people’s lives — the influences that shape drinking behaviour. It implies irresponsibility of black people who remain marginalised, while diverting attention from those industry practices that encourage binge-drinking in SA.

We must obviously encourage individuals to take more control of their personal behaviour. However, the way to reduce heavy drinking is not through trite appeals to “drink responsibly”, but by reducing the incentives to drink excessively.

For this reason we cannot simply flip the argument on its head and urge the industry to act more responsibly, because it too is driven by a set of incentives that shape its behaviour. Those incentives — to grow its African market and maximise profit — stand in direct conflict to what is best for our nation now, which is to halve the average per capita consumption of alcohol among those who drink. That would bring us down to the global average.    

The liquor industry argues that combating heavy drinking is a complex issue that requires more research. It may be complex, but there is plenty of global and local evidence of what needs to be done now, including a ban on all advertising of alcohol except at point of sale, a floor price per unit of alcohol, a ban on oversized containers and a reduction in outlet density and the hours of opening, and implementing a track-and-trace system to control illegal sales.

We can hold neither the individual nor the industry primarily responsible for reducing alcohol harms in SA. It is the role of the government to enact and enforce the strategies that in other countries have already proved to reduce heavy drinking — in the public interest first and then in the interests of industry.

• Harrison is CEO of the DG Murray Trust.

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