Opinionista Justin McCarthy 27 January 2014

Motor vehicles are dangerous. Government should ban them.

Motor vehicles are dangerous. They kill and maim people and destroy property. The cost to our economy is prohibitive, not to mention the human misery and suffering victims and their loved ones have to endure. Thus, in order to reduce the harm done by them, government should introduce a raft of measures such as reducing speed limits, raising the legal driving age and banning vehicle advertising – because advertising glamourises speed and encourages the reckless abuse of vehicles.

If that last bit sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Yet this is exactly what several government ministries want to do with alcohol: raise the legal drinking age, restrict the availability of alcohol and ban liquor advertising. Now, I won’t argue that alcohol is as necessary to the functioning of our economy as motor vehicles are – that would be plain ridiculous – but it’s the principle that matters. It’s the second step (the first being tobacco) in a slippery downward slope of lame political meddling in citizens’ lives and in our economy, and it’s more insidious than it appears.

It’s a non sequitur to say that motor vehicles are dangerous. Of course they’re not, but the drivers commandeering them and the pedestrians wandering carelessly on the roads can be, and frequently are. Road accidents cost South Africa 12,800 lives in 2012, which at 27,6 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants ranked us the worst of 36 countries measured. According to the International Transport Forum’s Road Safety’s 2013 Annual Report, the cost of this carnage is estimated at over R300bn per annum, which represents around 8.1% of the country’s GDP. That’s more than six of the nine provinces’ individual contributions to the economy. Put another way, it exceeds the combined economic contributions to GDP of agriculture, fishing and forestry (2.3%), construction (3.4%) and electricity (2.1%). That’s an awful lot of money and an awful lot of destruction.

According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the annual cost to the economy of alcohol-related issues is in the order of R9bn. This is a figure he repeated several times in media conferences and interviews in the first quarter of 2013. Then Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini bandied about a figure of R38bn in the third quarter of 2013, more than four times her Health counterpart’s estimates. With such wildly varying estimates, it is no wonder those of us with a critical eye view government “data” suspiciously. Either way, it’s a fraction of the cost of our road carnage, yet it appears to be getting a great deal more of our ministries’ attention.

Minister Dlamini stated: “It is the state’s responsibility to protect the health and well-being of South Africans, and research indicated that alcohol advertising influenced behaviour negatively”. I’m not sure I agree with that statement, but it is where she publicly admits to a flaw in her call for an advertising ban that things get interesting. “A study of 20 countries over 26 years found that alcohol advertising bans did not decrease the consumption of alcohol (my emphasis), [however] alcohol advertising still glamorises and encourages the use of a product that causes serious harm to individuals and to society”. This is something of a climb-down from her earlier position and that of the health minister. It is also tantamount to an admission of an argument I made in an article in 2012 where I quote multiple research findings that debunk this social learning theory and the positive correlation of alcohol advertising and consumption. Sadly, I don’t take this as a weakening of government’s position. On the contrary, our ministers are quite capable of confirmation bias, of a parsimonious attitude to the truth and of specious or even fallacious arguments when required. None of the ministries are forthcoming with their research sources, so I went looking for them and found one single primary source: the World Health Organisation. Specifically the WHO’s Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol (2010) and the WHO’s Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases (2010). Additionally, the inter-ministerial committee references Professor Charles Parry, a Director of the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Research Unit at the Medical Research Council. Parry is also an Extraordinary Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University, whose papers in turn reference chiefly the WHO.

Surely it would be more appropriate if our government took the trouble to conduct a little research of its own before shutting down a portion of several industries that could result in as many as 12,000 job losses? Or is that just too risky to a predetermined outcome, bothersome and time consuming to conduct, and altogether too much to ask of our public office bearers?

The WHO global strategy to reduce harmful use of alcohol lists ten key areas of action:

  1. leadership, awareness and commitment;
  2. health services’ response;
  3. community action;
  4. drink-driving policies and countermeasures;
  5. availability of alcohol;
  6. marketing of alcoholic beverages;
  7. pricing policies;
  8. reducing the negative consequences of drinking and alcohol intoxication;
  9. reducing the public health impact of illicit alcohol and informally produced alcohol;
  10. monitoring and surveillance.

Within each of these areas the WHO lists a number of specific recommended interventions. The four priority areas for global action are:

  1. public health advocacy and partnership;
  2. technical support and capacity building;
  3. production and dissemination of knowledge;
  4. resource mobilisation.

Of these four priority areas, there is nothing in the draft bill or in any of the rhetoric emanating from any corner of government about numbers two, three and four. I find this intriguing as it indicates a selective bias on government’s behalf to enact the easier components of the interventions, which not coincidentally tend to be the least effective measures. Many of the sound bites from both ministers are straight out of the WHO papers, yet they are silent on other, tougher to implement and more effective measures.

Surely if government is going to rely on WHO research recommendations rather than its own, then it would be logical to implement their recommendations more or less in line with the emphasis they are given rather than in a randomly selective and narrow manner? Surely it makes sense to apply the well-intentioned resources of an inter-ministerial task force to the massively destructive road carnage that took 1,376 lives this past summer holiday season alone before turning its attention to the dysfunctional and almost criminally inept education system, primary health care and a long list of other, more pressing needs? Sadly, that appears not to be the case. After all, it’s much easier to sit in Parliament and pass legislation than it is to deal with complex problems that require concerted effort and collective will that actually make a difference to the lives of citizens. DM

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