Opinionista David Harrison 5 June 2020

What the liquor industry really fears about the lockdown

If the liquor industry regards itself as a good corporate citizen, those who write under its name should not resort to cheap psychological tricks but should ensure that, in both the social and economic calculus, its good outweighs its bad.

It has been instructive to watch the differing responses of the tobacco and alcohol industry to the ban on sales during lockdown. The tobacco lobby has gone on the offensive, blowing smoke and thunder. On the other hand, the response of the alcohol industry has been more measured and smooth, at least in its engagement with the government. 

It has pointed to its significant role in the economy, “supporting over one million jobs and contributing 3% to the GDP”, according to a statement released on behalf of industry bodies.

When members of the Gauteng Liquor Forum clearly didn’t get the memo and threatened to mount legal action, it seems to have taken just a few calls for them to calm down and toe a more placatory line. And that industry line was clear: the lockdown was undermining the benefit of the industry to the South African economy and if it could just be reversed, excise taxes would start rolling in, jobs would be saved and the country would be a lot better off.

At the same time, a less subtle campaign – aimed more at gut than head – unfolded at a respectable social distance from official industry communication. 

An article penned by an excise manager at South African Breweries popped up on a number of online news sites, entitled “5 myths about the alcohol ban in South Africa”, while an anonymous video with remarkably similar content did the rounds on social media. This advertorial, apparently swallowed hook, line and sinker by the biz-news websites which published it, uses an old marketing trick called the straw man fallacy. It makes an exaggerated claim that no reasonable person would actually make and then shows up the inanity of the claim. The straw man is usually invoked as a distraction when people have something to hide. 

In this case, the “myth-busting” exposé first invented and then rubbished the contentions that “the ban on alcohol sales means that nobody has been drinking in lockdown” and that it “stopped the trade in alcohol”. Of course, such absolute statements could be discredited by just one wayward drinker or illicit exchange posted on Instagram – which leaves a lot of room for rebuttal. And rebut the campaign did, arguing that “millions of photos on social media of people having a drink … is evidence enough” of the failure of the alcohol ban.

Which raises a rather perplexing question: Why would the liquor industry go to great lengths to describe the threat to employment, taxes and GDP posed by the ban, on the one hand, and exuberantly trumpet its failure to curb drinking on the other? If people kept drinking, who actually lost out?

The paradox could be explained if liquor purchases were substituted by homebrews or the sale of illicit concoctions. In that case, it would mean less tax collection and the substitution of formal jobs for informal ones. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not according to Darren Swersky, MD of the PicardiRebel Group, who acknowledged that the illicit liquor being sold was “genuine liquor”.

Yet if the liquor sold was genuine liquor, where did it come from, and in sufficient quantities to allow millions of people on social media to “keep walking”?  Enforcement of lockdown was so strict that mass transport of liquor to and from bottle stores would have been stopped, as it was in Kagiso on the West Rand when SAB moved its products from one warehouse to another; and township taverns certainly don’t have eight-week reserves.

The “natural experiment” of the Covid-19 lockdown has shone a light on the strong links between alcohol abuse and crime, domestic violence and traffic accidents that preceded the lockdown – and the industry is squirming in that light. Its response seems to be to try to cover it up as quickly as possible. 

Most likely there was a sharp drop-off in overall alcohol sales, despite an uptick in illicit trade. Witness the long queues outside bottle stores on the first day the ban was lifted. The industry could tell us the facts, but they probably won’t. Did sales throughout the South African Breweries’ distribution network drop significantly during the lockdown or not? Either SAB knows there was no reduction and they can’t say without getting into trouble with the law, or there was a big reduction and they won’t say because that would confirm the efficacy of the alcohol ban!

Which gets to the real reason why the ban was implemented in the first place and why the liquor industry keeps tripping over its own tangled and contradictory lines. The “natural experiment” of the Covid-19 lockdown has shone a light on the strong links between alcohol abuse and crime, domestic violence and traffic accidents that preceded the lockdown – and the industry is squirming in that light. Its response seems to be to try to cover it up as quickly as possible. 

There is the risk that we interpret the lockdown effects in ways that support our prior beliefs, as Professors JP van Niekerk and Dan Ncayiyana pointed out in an article in the Sunday Times (17 May 2020). But that does not mean we should disregard prior facts. 

We don’t yet know how much of the reduction in crime, violence and domestic abuse was due to the alcohol ban and how much to the lockdown itself. However, we do know that, before the ban, alcohol was the fifth leading risk factor for death and disability in South Africa.

These emerging statistics will need to be verified and aggregated, but to suggest that the ban had little role in reducing crime and violence would be incongruous with the experience of trauma medics and our prior knowledge that over half of injury-related deaths in South Africa are alcohol-related.

According to data from the National Income Dynamics Study, over 40% of drinkers report binge-drinking, which is strongly associated with interpersonal violence and injury. A number of South African studies of motor accidents and admissions to trauma wards have shown high blood alcohol levels in between 50% and 60% of cases. These Bayesian priors suggest that at least half of the Level 4 and 5 lockdown effect on homicide, traffic accident and domestic violence rates might be linked to reductions in the availability of alcohol.

The Level 5 and 4 lockdowns and associated restrictions led to reductions of over 60% in contact crimes, including murder, rape and assault. Interestingly, in most other countries, the number of cases of domestic violence increased during lockdown. In South Africa, one of very few countries to implement a total ban on alcohol sales in response to the epidemic, the reverse happened, with an almost 70% drop in reported cases and a halving of the number of women seeking assistance at Thuthuzela Centres.

Level 3 restrictions will be illuminating, as alcohol is allowed but we are still largely confined to our homes. EyeWitness News reported that, according to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital’s CEO Nkele Lesia, the number of cases in the trauma unit almost doubled within 24 hours of the introduction of Level 3. The majority, he said, were drunk.

These emerging statistics will need to be verified and aggregated, but to suggest that the ban had little role in reducing crime and violence would be incongruous with the experience of trauma medics and our prior knowledge that over half of injury-related deaths in South Africa are alcohol-related.

While the industry is quick to highlight its economic benefit, it does not like its harms exposed – especially not when that harm can be quantified in terms that might prove that a net cost to society.

To be clear, the alcohol industry is a significant employer and revenue generator in South Africa. When abused, its products also cause considerable harm. When the direct costs of alcohol-related crime and injuries are taken into account, its net economic benefit of the industry is halved (to about 1.5% of GDP). When alcohol-related premature morbidity and mortality is factored in, that ratio flips, meaning that the liquor industry costs the country twice as much as it contributes.

If that industry regards itself as a good corporate citizen, those who write under its name should not resort to cheap psychological tricks, but should face up to both sides of the situation and ensure that, in both the social and economic calculus, its good outweighs its bad. 

At the same time, the question must be asked as to why certain media are so compliant as to publish what really amounts to unpaid advertorial by the alcohol industry. I sincerely hope it’s not added value for their actual advertising spend. Media houses owe it to the people of South Africa to state unequivocally that it is not. DM

David Harrison is the CEO of the DG Murray Trust.

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