In vino veritas, but in Parliament…

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi believes that a cap on alcohol advertising will help to reduce the negative impact of drinking on society.

Motsoaledi told Parliament yesterday that non-communicable diseases posed a new threat to the world, pointing to lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol use.

We are not convinced by the minister’s argument. Unlike lack of exercise and smoking, which are both always harmful and have no benefits of any sort, alcohol can be consumed in quantities that are safe and even beneficial to health.

This is not to deny that its abuse has terrible health and social consequences  so much crime committed in this country is done under the influence of alcohol, especially violent crimes where the victims are loved ones. But alcohol as such isn’t the problem abuse of it is.

The proposal to cap advertising also presupposes that alcohol use and abuse is fuelled mainly by advertising. But no study has been able to prove that alcohol advertising increases consumption. Certainly, alcohol has been used and abused throughout history, and long before advertising was even invented.

An advertising cap will then probably not achieve what the minister hopes. But it will definitely have other negative consequences, with some estimates that the economy could lose to the tune of R5 billion a year.

This is money we can hardly afford to lose, since poor socio-economic conditions make alcohol abuse more likely. The poor also lack the resources to fight addiction and deal with the medical effects of alcoholism that are available to the more well-off.

And so this plan could ironically end up worsening the situation, instead of alleviating the problem. We do need a debate about alcohol abuse in South Africa, and we need to ensure that advertisers stick to the rules and don’t, for example, market their products to those under the drinking age.

This will be much more effective than trying to use blunt instruments such as advertising caps.

Legislative attempts to control popular addictive substances have a long history of failure throughout the world, and government needs to keep this in mind as it attempts to tackle alcohol abuse.

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