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Throughout the world, booze inspires those thirsting fo...

Covid-19

THE LIQUOR BAN

Throughout the world, booze inspires those thirsting for tighter controls

The immediate effects of the booze ban in South Africa are still to be assessed. But some observers are crediting it with hospital trauma wards having fewer admissions and murder and rape rates falling. (Photo: Unsplash / Waldemar Brandt)

World crises have often influenced changes to liquor laws and researchers say Covid-19 might be just what is needed to cure South Africans of their drinking problem.

For decades barflies in England would grumble and tourists shake their heads in disbelief when, in the middle of the afternoon, without fail, the barkeep would turf them out of the pub. It became known as the dreaded “afternoon gap” – that dry period in the day, 3pm to 5pm, when by law pubs in England and Wales had to close, Mondays through to Saturdays.

The afternoon gap was the brainchild of the British war effort in World War I. The fear then was that munition workers would head to the pub for lunch, get boozed up and, well, forget to return to work.

So the Defence of the Realm Act (Dora) was passed and, even after the Germans were defeated, some of the legislation remained in place and the afternoon gap stayed. It was finally scrapped under a new licensing act in 1988.

World crises have a history of influencing changes to liquor laws. The latest crisis is no different, with South Africans experiencing the first-ever national ban on alcohol sales.

In the coming weeks, the ban is likely to be lifted, but some people are hoping the Covid-19 virus will be a catalyst to turn South Africans into more responsible drinkers.

It is well known that South Africa has a drinking problem. According to Professor Charles Parry of the South African Medical Research Council, 170 South Africans die a day from alcohol-related causes.

“The lockdown has given us the opportunity to see just how dependent our population is on alcohol, which we as researchers already know,” says Parry. “What we need now is a new normal.”

Research shows that the majority of South Africans are non-drinkers. But, of those who do use alcohol, half are what could be classified as heavy drinkers.

“What we would like to see is that, while there is still access to alcohol, its availability is restricted,” says the board chair of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance, Maurice Smithers.

One measure Smithers believes could work is forcing alcohol sales outlets to close their doors earlier. This would be akin to the 6pm closing time put in place when Covid-19 restrictions were first introduced in South Africa.

“If the restriction does lead to a permanent reduction in crime levels it would be possible to say to government that, given the fact that there has been this reduction in alcohol-related harm, through restricting the hours, surely it would make sense not to go back to 2am or 4am closing times, but instead to maybe 11pm,” explains Smithers.

Two Cabinet ministers have recently expressed a wish for tighter controls on alcohol consumption. Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu questioned whether South Africa had too many liquor outlets, while Minister of Police Bheki Cele opined: “I just hope that one day there will be no liquor … We must cherish this time and take some lessons forward.”

What might have an impact is getting legislation to work. Laws have been written but are currently tied up in South Africa’s judicial system.

“We have the Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Act 2013, which is stuck,” notes Parry. “The National Road Traffic Amendment Bill 2015, which is stuck. The Liquor Amendment Bill of 2017, which is stuck, and the Western Cape alcohol harms reduction legislation, which hasn’t been passed by the legislature. We need to look at what policy environment we want,” he argues.

Parry wants legislation to drop the legal drink-driving limit to zero.

While Zulu would like to see more control over the number of liquor establishments, Smithers believes this can only be done by providing people with better economic opportunities and, with that, choices.

“I looked at a study in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where they had a lot of social problems and liquor outlets,” he explains. “In the study, they asked owners of liquor outlets what you want to do with your lives. And only 16% said they were happy with what they were doing. Most said they were doing it to make money.”

 

The immediate effects of the booze ban in South Africa are still to be assessed. But some observers are crediting it with hospital trauma wards having fewer admissions and murder and rape rates falling.

 

One simple change in the post-pandemic world might help South Africans to kick their hard-drinking habits. A household survey in Tshwane found that people who drank alcohol out of above-average-sized containers were eight times more likely to be heavy drinkers than those who drank from smaller bottles.

Booze, such as beer, sold in bigger containers is usually cheaper.

The study suggested that, by making bottles smaller, through legislation, could lower consumption.

Anti-booze legislation can go a long way in curbing alcoholism. Just ask the Russians. For a long time, Russians were seen as the drunkards of Europe, a vodka-swilling nation of people who died young from alcohol-related illnesses. No longer.

According to the World Health Organisation, between 2003 and 2016 per capita alcohol consumption in the Russian Federation dropped by 43%. This apparently had a hand in pushing up average life expectancy to almost 68 years for men and 78 years for women.

“The dramatic decline in consumption of homemade, smuggled or illegally produced alcohol in the Russian Federation is attributable to the government’s adoption of evidence-based alcohol control policies,” says Carina Ferreira-Borges, programme manager, alcohol and illicit drugs, WHO/Europe, in a statement. “These results show that measures such as the introduction of monitoring systems, price increases and limited alcohol availability, work to save lives and health system costs.”

The immediate effects of the booze ban in South Africa are still to be assessed. But some observers are crediting it with hospital trauma wards having fewer admissions and murder and rape rates falling.

“Do we want our trauma wards filled with knife and gunshot wounds? Or maybe we can have a society where people drink responsibility,” says Parry. “And we are not saying turn off the taps.” DM

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