Picture: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Picture: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

The alcohol industry may have taken the first booze ban, which lasted for two months, lying down, but now, blindsided by a second ban that threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs, they are beginning to flex their muscles.

Distell, maker of Savanna ciders, brandies and Nederburg and Durbanville Hills wines, says it is “considering legal options”, spokesman Frank Ford confirms to the FM.

Equally, the alcohol industry – including VinPro, which represents 2,500 wine farmers, and the Beer Association, which represents AB InBev and Heineken – have jointly written to the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and asked to be provided with the data the government used to justify the ban.

“Access to the data will enable the industry and any other interested parties to understand better how these indicated conclusions and assumptions were arrived at,” they say.

The associations want to review the calculations by Professor Charles Parry of the SAMRC, who led the modelling but who did not personally suggest an immediate ban on booze sales. In fact, Parry told parliament he supported further restrictions on the selling of alcohol first.

In a presentation to the national coronavirus command council Parry and the SAMRC call for stricter regulations around alcohol over the long term. Parry has proposed higher taxes and booze prices for what he said in his presentation to parliament’s health portfolio committee on Wednesday will be the “new normal”.

To combat alcohol abuse, Parry suggests the government should:

Raise the legal drinking age to 19 years;

  • Prohibit alcohol delivery by anyone not employed by a liquor store with a licence, which would effectively stop Takealot or other websites from selling alcohol;
  • Decrease the drunk-driving limit to almost zero (which allows for cough syrup use);
  • Test the blood of all drivers involved in motor vehicle collisions;
  • Increase the tax on all alcohol products to 50% of the retail price; and
  • Halt the sale of relatively cheap 1l beer containers.

Parry told parliament that half of the 34,000 trauma cases since June 1, when the ban was lifted, were linked to alcohol.

But the industry would take issue with this, pointing out that the blood of patients is not collected by trauma units routinely. And the industry would ask to what extent those projections are peer reviewed by colleagues.

This week, health minister Zweli Mkhize said in a letter printed on TimesLIVE that by week three of the ban 6,800 hospital beds would be freed for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. But again, he hasn’t released the science nor explained where this number comes from.

The department of health this week argued that patients requiring ICU or high care in Cape Town academic hospitals Tygerberg and Groote Schuur increased from a daily average of 2,5 patients to almost 10 after the alcohol ban was lifted.

But it’s also unfair to subject all provinces to the ban when not all of them are short of hospital beds.

Western Cape premier Alan Winde said on Wednesday that the number of cases in the province were flat or stabilising, and had been for 10 days. At its peak the Western Cape had 1,900 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 320 in ICU.

The National Liquor Traders Council on Thursday also wrote to the president, arguing that 34,500 livelihoods of legal shebeen owners were at stake. It called for the government to refund the cost of this year’s licences and provide support of R20,000 to each taverner.

“You have chosen to [disregard] section 22 of our constitution, which states ‘Every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely’.”

The taverners say the government has robbed them of “our livelihood and means of survival, a source of pride and a vehicle which enables us to send our kids to school and put food on the table”.

This isn’t to say alcohol plays no role in hospital admissions. The Johannesburg Netcare Milpark trauma unit takes the blood of all trauma patients, and it estimates that eight out of every 10 people have drugs or alcohol in their systems.

But banning alcohol forever won’t solve the problem of inadequate policing for drunk driving, for example.

Either way, this appears to be just the beginning of a renewed push for stricter alcohol measures in SA. And it’s a move that has awoken the alcohol industry. For now, the industry is questioning the data behind the sudden ban — but it may soon be moved to take stronger measures.

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