- It has been almost a year since South Africa entered lockdown and the associated restrictions triggered by the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. One major restriction was the ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products. Although the restrictions have been lifted and subsequently partially implemented again throughout the fluctuating levels of lockdown, the effect of such ban presents a much larger issue in respect of the use and effect of alcohol on South Africans in general.
- Despite being accused of punishing millions of people who do not end up in trauma wards when they have a drink, the considerable damage being done to an already weakened economy, the loss of many jobs associated with the liquor industry, the decrease in tax revenue and the increase in illicit trade, the national government has stood firmly behind their decision. The recurring rationale behind the ban is one of high importance: to prevent hospitals and healthcare workers from being overwhelmed. Although the ban did considerably alleviate the overburdening of hospitals on every occasion it was implemented, a more permanent solution is required, one to be implemented with legal consequences.
- Ironically, in the same year that the draft Liquor Amendment Bill (the “Bill”) was first made public, the World Health Organization indicated that South Africa is in the top 20 of the biggest drinking countries in the world, and the third biggest in Africa. The same report also showed that more than a quarter of the drinking population in South Africa are considered binge drinkers, consuming at least 60 grams or more of pure alcohol in one session within a 30-day period.
- The Bill was first made available to the public in the Government Gazette No. 40319, as far back as 30 September 2016 when members of the public were invited to comment on the Bill. This Bill, if accepted and implemented, will amend the Liquor Act 59 of 2003 and proposes several changes, including the restriction of advertising of liquor or methylated spirits, the regulating of trading days and hours for distribution and manufacturing of liquor or methylated spirits, providing for auxiliary conditions for the granting of the liquor license, prohibiting trading in liquor within a certain radius, providing for proximity location for manufacturing and to provide for certain new offences, amongst other things.
- One of the more far-reaching proposed changes to the Liquor Act that the Bill proposes is to prohibit the supply of liquor or methylated spirits to persons under the age of 21. However, the reasoning behind considering the increase in age limit goes further than alcohol abuse, alcohol-related crimes and trauma admissions to hospital. Studies that informed the legislature, have indicated that the human brain continues developing until a person has reached their mid-20s. Therefore, the effect of alcohol on brain development is more detrimental amongst younger people. Further to this, a teenager processes information with a different part of their brain than adults who use the prefrontal cortex to process information. The reason for this is that the prefrontal cortex does not develop until the age of 25 years old.
- Some argue that due to the fact that the current age limit of 18 years old is not a deterrent to prevent the youth from consuming liquor, raising the age limit to purchase alcohol will likely have no significant effect on alcohol abuse amongst teenagers. Even with the drinking age being raised, young people will still be able to buy alcohol where there is no community support for the prohibition of underage alcohol sales. Thus, the Bill also calls for banning alcohol advertising on radio and television during certain times and on billboards placed less than 100 metres away from junctions, street corners and traffic circles, and introducing a 500 metre radius limitation of trade around educational and religious institutions. Researchers are convinced that this one-two punch of banning advertising and raising the legal drinking age will be effective and estimate that it will have the effect of reducing alcohol consumption among those aged 15 years and older.
- The knock-on effect of the Bill’s proposed changes to the Liquor Act is the prejudicial outcome it will have on the liquor and advertising industry. Should the Bill be passed, not only will these industries be affected, but educational institutions such as universities with on-site residences where the students have access to alcohol from the age of 18 years old will have to reconsider the structural layout of their university towns. This is supported by the fact that a large number of children start university at the age of 18 years old where they are now legally allowed to be exposed to alcohol, which has quite a damaging effect on them and their progress throughout university. As with university towns, the same can be said for any area in which there are restaurants, bars, nightclubs and any premises offering on-consumption liquor to people over the age of 18 years old.
In light of the above, it is apparent that the proposed Bill is controversial and only time will tell whether or not it will be effective. The exact date when the new law will be implemented has yet to be determined. President Cyril Ramaphosa said the government plans to intensify massive campaigns against the abuse of alcohol and drugs. The President stated that “the legislative part is something we need to look at very closely to see how do we begin to reduce the abuse of alcohol. It could revolve around things like age limit. We need to raise the age limit. Or do we need to look at trading hours for the purchase of alcohol? Do we need to look at things like taxation?”
 Preamble to the Liquor Amendment Bill, 30 September 2016.