A CAMPAIGN to eliminate or reduce the availability of alcohol under the guise of recent public health policy interventions appears to be under way. Bolstered by the ban on alcohol sales in terms of the National Disaster Act, the group made an appearance on eNCA last night, apparently to ‘debate the ban’ and a series of regulations gazetted in terms of legislation which is currently under judicial scrutiny.
Although Leslie London, of Public Health Medicine at the University of Cape Town agrees with Maurice Smithers of the African Alcohol Policy Alliance that the ban is not sustainable in the long-term, he appeared to offer contradictory information. On the one hand the initial ban also affecting transport had ‘reduced trauma cases in hospital wards’, on the other, the later ban without the transport component, ‘had not shown significant reductions’.
Mary Makgaba from POWA asserts there is ‘a strong correlation between gender based violence and alcohol abuse’, but agreed with the economic arguments that people’s livelihoods also mattered. Yet as often noted, correlation does not imply causation — the presence of alcohol is not sufficient reason to infer gender bias, in the same way drinkers are not all necessarily men.
While Makgaba was in support of restrictions, Both London and Smithers claimed that ‘alcohol is a drug’ requiring stronger regulation by government. They argue that South Africa should adopt the WHO guidelines on ‘reducing availability, increasing price of alcohol and curtailing or banning alcohol advertising’.
Prohibitionists have historically used religious arguments to ban alcohol, but today’s members of the temperance union rely upon the fact that alcohol is classified as a ‘central nervous system depressant’. Instead of arguing for harm reduction, they wish to closet alcohol use behind a veil of bourgeois values and assertions — reducing the size of beer bottles, making alcohol less affordable or simply unaffordible to the working class and poor.
Some of the suggestions made by Smithers appear eminently reasonable at first glance, for example, reducing the number of outlets or restricting the amount of alcohol available to purchase, yet each carries a price, the problem of enforcement and consequent danger of the criminalisation of alcohol users who do not comply.
After decades of filling the nation’s jails with drug users, the motion to lock up alcoholics is the antithesis of harm reduction and drug liberalisation strategies. Broader societal harm caused by alcohol needs to be weighed against the long-term harm caused by a reduction in individual freedoms and the rise of a police state — the true cost of policing and enforcement of policy, not simply upon people’s lives but also livelihoods.
The science provided was also incredibly thin, mere references to materials handed out by the WHO — there is yet to be a national review of the medical literature with any input from the social sciences and humanities.
Banning private transportation for instance, as London appears to suggest, would offer an immediate benefit to hospital wards, but just about nobody and not even the Professor of Public Health, is standing up complaining that the cost of vehicle transport on people’s lives is way too high, nor are today’s temperance union members averring that drunk-driving offences receive longer sentences.
South Africa remains a democratic republic where public health policy is set in terms of a constitutional dispensation not medical fiat. A dispensation that enshrines individual freedoms over the body, and a political reality that is not the result of the diktat of bureaucrats in Geneva, but rather a democratic revolution.
Is anyone in Pretoria listening?