Let’s be more like the Russians
The consequences of rescinding the ban on alcohol have led to calls to reinstate it. While it seems that this may be an almost impossible policy question, there are examples of countries that have been able to reduce the volume that people drink. This time, Russia leads the way, and our politicians should follow.
There can be no doubt of the damage wrought to our society by alcohol. Our government, like many others, has battled for decades with the consequences of alcohol abuse: the horrific violence and thousands of deaths on our roads, year after year.
Perhaps the biggest indication, the biggest symbol of the scale of our national addiction to alcohol has been the queues that formed in the hours before bottle stores opened last week. On Monday, 1 June, people started queuing in some places from 4am. The parking lots of middle-class shopping centres were packed as people lined up around corners and through walking areas to buy alcohol.
When rumours spread through WhatsApp groups earlier this week that the ban might be reinstated, the queues sprang back to life again.
And then the evidence of the consequences of this started to mount up. Doctors spoke of the heavily increased loads in hospitals’ casualty units, nurses spoke about how busy they suddenly were, and some spoke of the unmistakable smell uniquely connected to the mixture of blood and alcohol.
On Monday, that led to the premier of the Eastern Cape, Lubabalo Mabuyane, to say that he would ask the National Coronavirus Command Council to consider banning alcohol in his province again.
There may well be strong public support for this move and for some kind of stronger policy intervention going forward. Surveys conducted at the start of the lockdown indicate that a permanent ban on the sale of alcohol would enjoy majority support.
However, public opinion doth not make good public policy. If it did, we would still have both corporal and capital punishment. And the real policy question around alcohol is that it is linked to addiction, which means complex and nuanced policy interventions are required, lest millions of South Africans find themselves on the criminalised margins of society.
At the same time, there is certainly an appetite within government to implement such a ban. Police Minister Bheki Cele has taken every opportunity to voice his support, saying time and time again that there is a link between violence and alcohol. He is unlikely to be alone in his view in Cabinet.
Still, the ban was not long enough for certain other consequences to be fully seen.
There is plenty of evidence that people were still drinking alcohol despite not being able to stock up before the ban. There were informal networks, and groups and organisations, and probably restaurants, selling down their stocks (these are businesses that had no income, their owners were sitting on an asset that had suddenly shot up in value, the outcome appears obvious). And then there were the cases involving people who died after brewing their own alcohol.
Should a ban be reimposed for a longer period of time, both of these dynamics would increase: there would be more illicit activity and an increase in the production of illegal alcohol of sometimes dubious quality and varying levels of life expectancy–reducing factors. This would also have negative consequences for society.
Although it is difficult to quantify whether this would lead to more or fewer deaths than are caused by alcohol now, it would cost South Africa in many other ways.
Another factor that is making it difficult to quantify the problem is that the long queues and the violence we saw over the last week may also have been, at least partly, due to the fact that people had been without alcohol for so long. That meant there were more parties, more gatherings, and more drinking. It may be important to get more data, to let more time pass, and make the sampling much greater and more diverse before working out hard figures on what action to take now. In short, we should not act in haste.
Over the years, the world has seen interventions other than prohibition which have been shown to both reduce the volume of alcohol abuse and increase life expectancy.
Possibly the best recent example of this is Russia.
There, the World Health Organisation says, “A plunge in alcohol consumption has been linked to a dramatic increase in life expectancy.”
In short, the changes started in 2003 when the government there slowly raised the excise taxes on alcohol, introduced a minimum unit price on vodka (also known in other jurisdictions as a price floor), started to track the production and sale of alcohol, and stopped the all-night sales of booze.
The other big change was that all marketing and advertising of alcohol became very tightly regulated or virtually banned.
It could well be argued that our society is very different from Russia’s: it is much more democratic, much more litigious and has higher levels of inequality. But it is well-known that alcohol and alcoholism have been huge problems in Russia for many years.
It would seem that most of the changes that Russia introduced would be relatively easy to introduce in South Africa. It would surely be uncontroversial to raise the price of alcohol, and it would be hard to see how banning alcohol advertising could be that divisive an issue.
The point is, these, and other precision-targeted measures could be introduced relatively easily.
Another intervention that requires investigation is the long-term impact of the current ban on the sale of alcohol on Fridays, weekends and public holidays. Again, this last weekend does not provide enough data to go on. But a combination of several outcomes is possible. It may be that some people simply don’t buy as much alcohol because they cannot get it, and thus they drink less overall. Others may buy more during the week to stock up in advance, and thus drink more because it is already in their homes. And still others may in fact try to create some kind of weekend market in illicit alcohol, people will stock up to sell to their neighbours.
At the same time, the consumption of alcohol “on-premises” is still banned. There is plenty of evidence that the majority of South Africa’s murders involve young men drinking in bars and taverns on Friday and Saturday nights.
This makes this period, where those venues are closed on weekends, but bottle stores are open during the week very important. It could provide data that could well inform the next policy move.
Making policy around addictive substances which are currently legal is always difficult, and there are many factors and role-players (including the alcohol and tobacco companies) to deal with. There are probably two things that should be avoided.
The first is a moralistic tone. Our country is difficult to govern at the best of times, and moralising lectures from ministers attempting to regulate morality or behaviour from a public lectern can only backfire. It creates a situation where attempts to change behaviour can be easily undermined and at the very worst, could rightly be seen as hypocritical.
The second is that there are no quick fixes without unintended and negative consequences. A better policy is possible. And it is absolutely worth spending time and energy on it. DM