I recently read that the South African government’s attempts to establish new policies to influence alcohol advertising and increase the legal age for alcohol use have been met with some resistance by the alcohol industry – some economist and prominent corporate bodies.

Some of the interesting arguments (paraphrased in my own words) used to slow down the implementation of these policies include:

  1. The alcohol industry simply contributes so much to the economy to put up with these nonsensical policies of regulation.
  2. Any restrictions on advertising will affect this significant economic contribution.
  3. Raising the legal age limit, well will this even work?

Many of these arguments were followed up by descriptions of the government as being paternalistic and infringing on consumer rights. These arguments fail to consider other important costs of alcohol harm such as social impact of alcohol. So why don’t we explore the other financial contributions the alcohol industry makes to the South African economy, the importance of alcohol marketing restrictions and increasing the legal age limit for alcohol use.

Big Alcohol supports the economy…, don’t they?

The current cost data used to support the positive effect of the alcohol industry on the South African economy does not take into account the other costs that negatively impact the economy. So yes, 2009, the alcohol industry made a R116 Billion (Bn) contribution to South Africa’s economy and directly employed approximate 87 000 people. This economic contribution loses its lustre when you look at the other tangible and intangible financial costs borne that year as a result of the industry.

Tangible financial cost in the same year were estimated at R38 Bn. This amount is the sum of the health and welfare costs, crime costs and costs caused by traffic accidents. Alcohol is the third highest contributor to death and disability in South Africa after interpersonal violence and unsafe sex and sexually transmitted diseases. It directly contributes for 7% of South Africa’s total burden of disease. Furthermore, alcohol also indirectly influences the incidence of infectious diseases, injury-related disease and non-communicable disease which brought the total alcohol-related expenditure by the health care sector to R 11.6 Bn.

Intangible financial costs have been estimated at a staggering R 242 Bn – more than twice as much as the “contribution” of the alcohol trade to our economy. This total was drawn from costs borne from premature death and mortality as a reduction in earning of individuals due to death or disability, premature death and disability as a value of statistical life (what an individuals is willing to pay to prevent death), absenteeism and non-financial welfare costs.

The first three costs significantly impact on an individual’s ability to work and thus their productivity in an economy. In 2009, they accounted for approximately R 226 Bn. The non-financial welfare cost is calculated as the emotional cost an individual is willing to pay to prevent the premature morbidity and mortality related with alcohol. Although this cost only made a contribution of R 16 million toward the total of intangible costs, we can just imagine the great social impact on families and communities across South Africa. Much anecdotal evidence has been gathered by local prominent research units, qualifying the painful realities individuals live as a result of alcohol harm.

Attractive marketing targeting youth

The South African government also aims to increase the legal age limit of alcohol use and ban alcohol advertising. I don’t know about you, but I was once a student in a university with a prominent alcohol culture that permeated all aspects of student life. From my own personal reasons as well as the real fear of “letting myself go” (you see I was already an outrageous sober extrovert), I never developed a great need for alcohol to facilitate my social interactions. Yes, I was 18 and yes, I was legally allowed to consume alcohol and purchase my own alcohol but I still chose to live free from alcohol.

Local research has already found that the most at risk age group of alcohol harm are the youth aged between 15 to 29 years old. As with the national trend, alcohol is also the most abused substance in this age group. There has also been an association drawn between early alcohol consumption with high consumption patterns in adulthood.

So besides the seemingly silly behaviour my friends engaged in what other effects have been recorded? High levels of binge alcohol intake have been associated with university students engaging in risk-averse behaviour such as a driving or walking under the influence of alcohol, sexual risky behaviours and actions that bring about personal injury. If we look at South Africa’s high levels of crime and a prevalence of HIV/ AIDS these alcohol induced behaviours place the youth at a great risk of injury, death or disability.

A group not often mentioned is the youth in tertiary institutions (universities or colleges). They are commonly aged between 18 to 22 years old and they, too, are at risk of alcohol harm: as anecdotal evidence shows, alcohol consumption and a university’s absenteeism, failure, suicide and drop-out rates might be closely correlated. A recent study found moderate, hazardous and dependent drinking behaviours was prevalent in students of a selected university.

Recent research has shown the power of alcohol advertising to influence underage alcohol uptake and consumption amounts by glamorising alcohol, encouraging excessive intake and associating with positive effects, like success and happiness. This exerts a perverse form of societal pressure to fit in with what everyone “fun” or “sophisticated” is doing. Empirical research has already shown not only that alcohol advertising affects the consumption behaviour of young people but also that it affects the age of alcohol initiation.

Besides these messages communicated, the locations and times of adverts are often shown in prime time viewing, sports events and locations in the vicinity of places of worship and schools. I have personally witnessed the alcohol promotion on university and college campuses by the alcohol industry in South Africa. The industry’s message of responsible alcohol use is often smaller than its message to consume more, because “you are students who are supposed to have party and a party is starts with alcohol”. The importance of raising the legal age limit is a strategy to decrease access to alcohol by a currently at risk youth. Placing a ban on alcohol advertising will stop the exposure to erroneous messages perpetuated by the industry.

The economic costs borne by other public sectors as a result of alcohol harm supersede the income the alcohol trade generates for the economy. I often get the feeling that the alcohol industry is frequently too quick to lay blame on the consumer for alcohol problems but never manages to acknowledge their role in marketing their product, or making it so readily accessible and attractive for children and youth – which are some of the root causes for alcohol harm.

I can see that the new policies of marketing restrictions and raising the legal limit make the industry more accountable for its influence on the South African society.

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