It is time for us to focus our attention as a people on the challenges related to our drinking habits and behaviours. The scale of this is massive; we are the sixth-highest consumers of alcohol globally according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is not a statistic that we could or should be proud of, and it is crying out for a national conversation.
If we are to successfully address this challenge, we need to acknowledge that there is a fundamental difference between the use of alcohol and the abuse of alcohol. This means we need realistic approaches – based on the realisation that alcohol abuse is the real problem, not alcohol itself. This was reinforced by the President in one of the many “Family Meetings” held over the last 17 months when he spoke about the irresponsible alcohol consumption behaviour of consumers and its negative impact on the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are two issues we need to focus on in reducing the harmful consumption of alcohol in this context: excessive or binge drinking, and underage drinking. Studies indicate that effective management of excessive drinking and underage drinking requires a combination of control and education: a carrot and a stick approach that highlights the dangers of alcohol abuse and encourages behavioural change while providing an integrated and balanced regulatory framework for managing behaviour where necessary.
If we are to find sustainable solutions, we also need to understand that alcohol harm is part of a complex interaction of factors and root causes that include the triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment, as well as other critical social issues. This requires a whole-of-society, multi-stakeholder approach to reducing the harmful consumption of alcohol.
A central player in this is obviously the alcohol industry itself. Through the Association for Alcohol Responsibility and Education (aware.org), the industry has tackled the harmful consumption of alcohol head-on by investing over R450 million in targeted interventions focused directly on education and awareness around underage drinking, excessive drinking, drinking and driving/walking, responsible trading, and the risks associated with drinking while pregnant to drive behaviourial change. In addition, R200 million per year has been committed for the next five years to further support sustainable alcohol harm reduction.
But the industry is just one part of a complex eco-system; critical societal issues can only be meaningfully addressed through the involvement of all the relevant role players. It’s clear that alcohol traders (whether on-site, off-site or online) play a major role in ensuring responsible trading and drinking. This includes not selling to or serving minors, clearly intoxicated individuals and pregnant women. The same ‘responsible trading’ argument can be applied to those involved in the marketing and communication of alcohol who need, for example, to avoid promoting the concept that excessive drinking is “cool”. Government also has a role to play. We need, at the very least, minimum drinking guidelines set by government and closer partnerships with the entire alcohol value chain and their related stakeholders.
And what of the role we play as (legal) alcohol consumers? As a drinker, do you know the limits and drink responsibly? Do you drink and drive? If you have young people in your home, are you conscious of the fact that you could unwittingly be playing a role in promoting underage drinking? Do you encourage your child to fetch a drink for you from the fridge, or do you send your child to the nearest outlet to buy you alcohol? Our research shows that this exposure to alcohol at an early age inevitably leads to underage drinking. In fact, someone once said to me that “we don’t have irresponsible kids, we have irresponsible parents.
So how do we change decades of habits with regards to irresponsible and excessive drinking? Do we need a cultural and behavioural shift that will lead to real and sustainable change? Ultimately, it’s going to take a collective national effort if we are to bring excessive drinking and underage drinking under control. We cannot continue to navigate a space with two extremes: excessive drinking on one extreme and an alcohol ban on the other. Somehow, we need to strike a balance. This means finding – negotiating, even – realistic solutions to the massive challenge we face as a people.
Our appeal as aware.org is for a more constructive approach to these challenges, where government, social workers, law enforcement, academics, health practitioners and the entire alcohol industry value chain sit down together and find common ground. Because if ever there was a time for some sober thinking around the use and abuse of alcohol, it is now.