Cost of Alcohol Abuse Higher than Previously Thought

New Study by SACBC Justice and Peace Commission and DG Murray Trust

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By Miriam Mannak

A new baseline study commissioned by SACBC Justice and Peace Commission and DG Murray Trust suggests the economic and social costs associated with alcohol abuse in South Africa are far higher than previously thought. In some provinces, the burden may even outstrip the sector’s economic contributions, making alcohol the most harmful drug at a population level. What makes it worse is that many existing interventions, including law enforcement and legislation, are not effective in solving the problem.

In terms of the South African economy, the alcohol sector is a key player. The wine value chain alone pours R36 billion per year into our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) whilst employing a third of a million (290,000) people.

Whilst the wine, beer and liquor industry is important to our economy, employment creation, and export earnings, the social costs are huge, a new report

According to the data, the widespread excessive use of alcohol in our country is the third-largest contributor to death and disability after Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and interpersonal violence. It is, for instance, estimated that alcohol plays a role in 80% of deaths among young men.

Reality is likely worse, says lead researcher and associate professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg, Kezia Batisai. “These two issues themselves tend to be influenced by the excessive consumption of alcohol,” she writes in her report, which she compiled earlier this year for the SACBC’s Strengthening Communities Through Reducing Alcohol-Related Harms Project.

Batisai adds that many previous surveys on the costs of alcohol only look at the direct economic impact, not at the social costs. The last one dates to 2003 and estimated the economic impact of alcohol at R8.7 billion, exclusive of the social costs borne by drinkers and those affected by people’s drinking.

These include costs associated with gender-based violence, sexual crime, the implications of unsafe sex, mental health issues, and increasing levels of poverty, which are both a cause and a consequence of excessive alcohol use.

“Alcohol is the most widespread drug of abuse in South Africa and the most harmful drug at a population level… Empirical evidence from the Western Cape Province suggests that the costs of alcohol-related harms – along with the other social harms outweigh the contributions,” the report states, for which Batisai interviewed dozens of tavern owners and patrons in Klerksdorp and Port Elizabeth, as well as students at both the Nelson Mandela University (NMU) and the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) in Durban.

Based on some of their feedback, the report has also found that tools and interventions to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harms are effective in not reaching the people who need it the most. When it comes to help for drinkers who want to tackle their alcohol dependency, most patrons said they are aware of help forums but added there is little interest. This is because of the social stigma and the fact these forums don’t communicate to their audiences effectively.

Besides, legislation to prevent risky drinking behavior is often not implemented, thus not effective: 80% of Klerksdorp survey respondents said they knew about by-laws, but 64% said these do not help reduce alcohol-related harms, for instance, among minors.

“Some tavern owners like to do things as they wish, like having under-aged children in taverns,” one respondent said. “Underage drinking does not matter at all. You find that during the day a young boy in a full school uniform can get to a tavern and get a beer.”

In Port Elizabeth, patrons and tavern owners also noted a lack of implementation of and non-compliance with by-laws related to opening hours, which translates into most taverns, with a few exceptions, opening early and closing extremely late, if they ever close.

Inadequate and corrupt law enforcement officials are not aiding the situation. “In some cases, the police are the friends of the tavern owners, so they [the owners] are protected,” a Klerksdorp respondent said, whilst another confided the police are taking bribes from tavern owners.

That said, whilst most respondents enjoy drinking, many want to be part of reducing alcohol-related harms. A quarter of Klerksdorp participants (24%), for instance, said to have attended Community Policing Forum (CPF) meetings organized by alcohol producers, the Liquor board, police, and other stakeholders to talk about problems caused by taverns concerning closing hours, underage drinking, and the need for more security. Many others want to. “I have not participated before but going forward I want to be part so I can challenge the municipality about their by-laws,” a respondent said.

This is where the key lies in fighting South Africa’s alcohol-related harm problem, Batisai says. Besides eliminating all corrupt law enforcement agents and hiring more officers to ensure adequate patrols and strict enforcement of municipal by-laws take place, communities should receive adequate tools that work within their context. “Communities should urgently strengthen existing CPFs and revive those that collapsed in the past to ensure participation and involvement.”

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