PROBLEM DRINKING OP-ED
Tackling the global problem of alcohol abuse and the slack controls that oil its wheels
South Africa has failed to address the root causes of problematic drinking, such as the availability of cheap alcohol and weak regulations, including inadequate controls on alcohol marketing and poor controls on liquor sales.
South Africa is set to host the 7th Global Alcohol Policy Conference, known as GAPC2023, in Cape Town from October 24 to 26. The primary focus of this conference is to shed light on action needed to move alcohol policy agendas forward both at global and national levels.
South Africa has faced challenges in reducing problematic drinking, especially heavy drinking, a problem that became more evident during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One notable incident, the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy in July 2022 where 21 teenagers died, highlighted the issue of underage drinking with many taverns operating without adhering to their alcohol licence regulations and liquor authorities inadequately investigating applications prior to issuing licences or monitoring compliance.
The country has also grappled with a litigious liquor sector dominated by big alcohol companies. Despite the pandemic, South Africa has struggled to establish a new normal post the Covid-19 pandemic due to several factors.
First, it has failed to address the root causes of problematic drinking, such as the availability of cheap alcohol and weak regulations, including inadequate controls on alcohol marketing and poor controls on liquor sales.
Second, key alcohol legislation has been stalled across various government departments and with the dissolution of the Interministerial Committee on Substance Abuse the country has moved backwards in terms of dealing with the fragmentation that exists in policy responses to alcohol across different sectors of government.
Liquor industry interference in policy-making
Third, industry interference in policy-making has been a pervasive issue, delaying or weakening effective policy reform.
These challenges are not unique to South Africa, with similar inadequate progress reported during the recent Global Alcohol Action Plan (Gaap) session at the 73rd WHO Regional Committee for Africa meeting held in Botswana. The evidence supporting effective measures to combat alcohol-related harm is robust, even though research funding often favours high-income countries.
However, initiatives like the WHO SAFER initiative and Gaap (2022-2030) provide clear guidelines for actions at both the national and international levels.
It would be encouraging if South Africa, the host country, would not only use the platform of GAPC2023 to show a renewed commitment to moving forward with the stalled Department of Trade Industry & Competition’s 2017 Liquor Amendment Bill, but would even go further to show a commitment to supporting both regional and global efforts to take the alcohol control agenda forward.
The central questions are whether action by national governments, even if comprehensive and following evidence-based strategies, will be enough to significantly reduce alcohol harms and ensure the attainment of the goal of Gaap.
The second question is whether global initiatives such as have been instituted for tobacco or drugs (namely the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control or the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances) or some similar mechanism are needed for alcohol and, if so, how to bring such a globally binding treaty into being.
In particular, such a mechanism could be useful in controlling difficult issues like cross-border digital marketing and addressing industry interference in policymaking.
GAPC2023 is expected to bring together nearly 500 delegates from various sectors, including academics, policymakers, community-based organisations, international NGOs, cancer societies, and the WHO over three days.
Keynote and other speakers from around the world will address a range of topics linked to the plenary sessions. Plenary sessions at the conference will delve into GBV, cancer, the role of regulators, alcohol pricing policies, digital marketing regulation, disrupting the influence of big alcohol, and new initiatives for impactful policies and reduced industry influence.
The conference also includes 29 concurrent sessions, with topics such as alcohol labelling, indigenous peoples and alcohol policy, advocacy and effective policies, developing a global action plan, women and children’s rights and alcohol, harms to women and children from men’s drinking, physical availability policies, alcohol and Covid-19, and policy implementation and enforcement.
The expected outcomes of the conference encompass enhancing the field of prevention and response to harmful drinking, strengthening research skills and knowledge in the African region, disseminating new knowledge for future research and policy-making, identifying research priorities, building momentum toward a Framework Convention on Alcohol Control, increasing media attention on alcohol-related harm, and garnering support for the WHO Global Alcohol Action Plan (2022-2030).
The conference is co-hosted by the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (Gapa), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa), and the Department of Social Development (DSD). It is co-sponsored by various organisations, including the DG Murray Trust, Open Philanthropy, the SA Convention Bureau, the National Department of Health, the National Research Foundation, Forut Norway, and the World Health Organization. DM
Professor Charles Parry is Chairperson of the #GAPC2023 Local Organising Committee; and Director of the Mental Health, Alcohol, Substance Use and Tobacco Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council.
Aadielah Maker Diedericks is a member of the #GAPC2023 Local Organising Committee and Secretary General for the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa).
Julian Jacobs is a #GAPC2023 Local Organising Committee Member (Communications Portfolio) and a PhD candidate at Rhodes University.
Gapa, the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance, is a network of non-governmental organisations, public health agencies, researchers, and institutions dedicated to sharing information on alcohol-related issues and advocating for evidence-based alcohol policies free from commercial interests. Regional and national alliances affiliated with Gapa operate in various regions, including Africa, the European Union, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the US, and the Western Pacific. Gapa’s bi-annual conferences serve as key gatherings for government representatives, academics, NGOs, and the WHO to exchange knowledge and experiences related to alcohol and its harmful effects. These conferences have been held in the US, Thailand, South Korea, Scotland, Australia and Ireland in the past.