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Is a genetic mistake or evolution to blame for our love...

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Is a genetic mistake or evolution to blame for our love of alcohol?

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By Tim Cohen
11 Jul 2021 6

Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

I was chatting recently to the owner of our local Spar in my little town Prince Albert about the alcohol ban. The owner was miserable about the ban, which took a huge bite out of the little store’s profit. But while we were chatting, I couldn’t help noticing how the tellers who overheard our conversation had doubtful looks on their faces. I asked one about how she felt about it, and she confessed she was very much in favour.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In small towns across the country – and big ones too – alcohol is something of a blight. It’s the cause of endless cases of domestic violence; foetal alcohol syndrome is widespread and a destroyer of lives; terrible, stupid murders and car accidents result from excessive drinking. It’s just a swathe of horror.

It’s hard not to notice how much of a gender split there is on the topic; women tend to see how alcohol abuse amps up the testosterone in men, and the result often turns out to be horrible.   

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, for the most part, drinking is also a joy. It’s easy to be censorious about the evils of alcohol, but think how many love affairs happen with a little push from a few glasses of wine, and how much creativity it has generated.  It’s such a relief and cause of wonderful happiness too. 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought this all into focus and, I have to say, given the Mother Grundies in government a reason to unleash rules that, if we are honest, make little sense. And so there is now a bitter battle between alcohol producers and the government looming yet again. Yet even those like me against alcohol bans have to acknowledge the numbers are just staggering now that we have had a chance to measure the effect.

As Adele Baleta reported on the Daily Maverick site, new research published in the South African Medical Journal has measured the effect of the different alcohol bans and restrictions throughout the pandemic. During the hard lockdown in March to May 202o, unnatural deaths halved. Instead of more than a thousand people dying a week, the number of unnatural deaths dropped by 517 people during a full lockdown and full curfew. In itself, that is a useful reminder of how much pain we live with in our country.

But the numbers are open to one challenge brought in force by the alcohol industry – that the decline is caused as much by the lockdown as by the alcohol ban. The research did show a lower decline in the number of unnatural deaths while the full booze ban was in force but the curfew was relaxed, which apparently tends to support the argument of the industry.

But the writers of the paper point out that in reality, ban or no ban, the reduction in the length of the curfew effectively increased access to alcohol. And in the six-week period after the hard lockdown when there were partial restrictions on alcohol and no curfew, there was still a significant reduction in the number of unnatural deaths. It declined about 13% from “normal” levels, which to be honest is not that much.

This all got me thinking: Why we do drink? Is it an evolutionary mistake, like our love of sugar, which was once rare, but which modern industry has turned into a profit-making, health-destroying juggernaut? Author Edward Slingerland recently wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal, summarising his findings from his book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.

Slingerland’s conclusion is that it’s not an evolutionary mistake at all. There are evils, including karaoke. But “at sites in eastern Turkey, dating to perhaps 12,000 years ago, the remains of what appear to be brewing vats, combined with images of festivals and dancing, suggest that people were gathering in groups, fermenting grain or grapes, playing music and getting truly hammered before humanity had even figured out agriculture.”

Alcohol has clearly ruined many lives, but consumed in moderation, alcohol alleviates stress, enhances mood, makes us more sociable and provides a much-needed vacation from the burdens of consciousness, he writes. The evidence from lockdowns is hard to determine, and there are studies that show that people who have a “local” – a neighbourhood establishment, serving food and alcohol, that they regularly frequent – enjoy better mental health and are more connected to their communities.

Despite the harm alcohol causes, I hope the courts take as lenient a line as possible on alcohol bans. The issue is not that alcohol does not cause social and personal damage, but that – like the war on smoking – the virtuous effect gradually declines and the creation of an underworld happens extremely quickly. And, of course, huge numbers of people effectively rely on the industry to get by.

In my local Spar, the popularity of pineapples has miraculously and dramatically increased, the owner told me. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • Alcohol..a medicine in moderation, a cultural norm and economic pillar. Just like few may use a tennis racket to hit their spouse and a car to be reckless with, one does not ban tennis or vehicular travel. Violence and road deaths are part of another social problem. To make restaurant businesses bear the brunt of social ills because of covid is a denial of the real problem that should be dealt with through the channels of law and order. All violence in this country, so far as I can see through the media, currently enjoys relative free reign. So rather begin by giving victims of violence reason and hope for a better society through effective institutions that will actually target the errant among us. This feeble excuse of banning alcohol points to a grim and weak governance.

  • I love a glass of wine before, with, and sometimes even after dinner but if there isn’t any it doesn’t stop me from eating dinner. What’s wrong with aqua vie anyway? Put some more wine in the stew I say.

  • Since we’re likely to be battling Covid-19 for some time to come, and since the purpose of the alcohol ban is to reduce the number of trauma cases admitted to our hospitals, it would make sense to collect data on alcohol related trauma admission so as to understand under exactly what circumstances the consumption of alcohol leads to hospital trauma admissions. Lockdown regulations can then be directed to preventing those specific circumstances, and no others. That way, we can avoid destroying the many livelihoods dependent on the benign consumption of alcohol.

  • Mankind needs consciousness/mood alteration. Always has, always will. Rampant use of drug forms other than alcohol illustrate the point. Many of those have more serious side effects, and together with alcohol being ensconced for historical reasons, make us think only of alcohol. Yet alcohol usage has serious side effects too. What is the bet that if something better comes along, it will be viciously opposed?

  • The point of the alcohol ban is to reduce pressure on the health system. For the first time in the hospital’s history, Chris Hani Baragwanath in Johannesburg had zero trauma cases on New Year’s Eve because of the alcohol ban in force. That in itself is astounding, but there must be similar admissions data to evaluate the effectiveness of the alcohol ban for its intended purpose. The doctors working at the coalface, at least the ones I have spoken to, are in support of the ban as an appropriate tool to alleviate demand on hospital beds when they are needed for critical covid patients. Right now, in the middle of the third and most vicious wave, it seems the right time for such a measure. Looking at the number of unnatural deaths as the only yardstick is not a useful way to measure the effectiveness of an alcohol ban (as the author partially concedes) as it does not relate to its primary purpose. It is also not possible for the government to miraculously cure the unhealthy relationship that many South Africans have with drinking in order to protect the health system. Yes, this has been brought into the spotlight and is in urgent need of attention nationally, but will take time and investment to remedy. Taking away the alcohol during high-risk periods is the only sensible route to reducing alcohol-related trauma admissions in the short term. Whether it is lawful is not something I am qualified to comment on, but it will no doubt be challenged in the coming months.

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