With a possible third wave of Covid-19 on the horizon, the South African alcohol industry has clapped back at government by releasing the findings of an independent study questioning the motives behind liquor sales bans.
In a joint show of force, the industry said that it was aware of the realities and harms associated with irresponsible alcohol consumption and the pressure it placed on healthcare personnel during surges of Covid-19. However, there is no evidence that the Covid-induced alcohol sales bans were necessary.
SA Liquor Brand Owner’s Association (SALBA) chairperson Sibani Mngadi clarified that the study was not intended to dispute the harsh realities of alcohol consumption, but aimed at opening a constructive dialogue on facts, towards holistic solutions.
“We understand that the government carries the daunting responsibility to save lives in the face of a disease that has claimed too many already.
“We accept that we have a responsibility to help eliminate the abuse of alcohol and the social ills that go with it, knowing, also, that we can’t achieve this alone. Effective enforcement of existing regulations is a big part of the equation,” said Mngadi.
The industry has been at loggerheads with government over the series of on-and-off bans and restrictions imposed over the past year. It argued that alcohol restrictions did not have a significant effect on trauma admissions over and above the effect of the curfew.
The findings of the alcohol industry’s study, contracted to Ian McGorian of Silver Fox Consulting, an independent data expert, was released this week.
The study was done in collaboration with University of KwaZulu Natal’s school of mathematics, statistics, and computer sciences’ prof. Mike Murray, and reviewed by prof. Graham Barr, emeritus professor in the department of statistical sciences at the University of Cape Town.
Funded by Distell, it revealed insights into Mzansi’s alleged “tumultuous” relationship with alcohol. It furthermore raised questions on evidence relied on to justify the bans on alcohol sales.
Not only did trauma cases decline by 60% under lockdown, but this was a common phenomenon across the globe in countries that had no existing ban on alcohol sales including Italy, Ireland and the United States showing a similar phenomenon.
Mngadi said, “Countries around the world show the same pattern of reduced trauma admissions to hospitals during lockdowns, without an alcohol ban. This suggests that lockdowns and curfews, rather than alcohol bans, are more strongly associated with a drop in trauma admissions.”
Blow felt across the liquor value chain
With a R2 billion dent in the gross domestic profit, the entire value chain – from retailers to glass manufacturers – believed more stringent liquor regulations would be detrimental to the industry.
Using the wine industry as an example, the study found that 30% of domestic sales were lost in 2020, leaving the industry with an excess of 300-million litres supply. With harvest season soon ending, the industry also stands to write off 100% of grapes not harvested.
Managing director for Vinpro Rico Basson said the industry held firm in the implementation of targeted intervention through partnerships with government to save lives and combat social ills related to alcohol abuse.
Basson added, “We do however not support the continued outright bans on the sale of wine without any empirical data to support it, ill-conceived engagement from government and one-sided decision-making while international best practice indicates that a combination of alternative measures can be effective to mitigate risks.”
Consol chief executive Mike Arnold echoed said, “The glass industry has lost several billion Rands in turnover and production during the alcohol bans and has only recently recovered to pre-Covid levels.
“It’s very constructive to have an informed and objective basis to determine how we can proactively and better support government to halt the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Distell chief executive Richard Rushton added the industry was merely asking that an objective view be taken of the data to facilitate more meaningful dialogue with decision-makers.
“We are all on the same side, and we want to help find solutions. We are very clear that alcohol abuse is unacceptable and causes harm.”
Rushton added, “Our view is that the focus must be on finding ways to deal with high-risk drinkers, rather than using blunt instruments that penalise all South Africans. Any proposed new regulations need to be evidence-based, rational and target problem areas.”
‘Govt. needs to go back to the drawing board’
With 220 000 jobs lost and billions in tax lost, Business Leadership SA chief executive, Busisiwe Mavuso argued that the bans on the alcohol industry could have been better managed. The real problem she believed, was the ban.
“The decisions made to confront the health crisis should not have unintended consequences for the economy, and that is exactly what has happened with the bans on alcohol. Business has, since the start of the pandemic, been a willing partner to government and needs to be part of the solution to ensure we fight this pandemic with the least possible damage to the economy.”
The Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) executive Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa said the tourism industry was desperate to get fully back onstream to help contribute to the economy and save jobs.
“The recent bans on alcohol sales have been a major contributor to the huge loss of travel spend and this latest in-depth data analysis is vital to allowing for a more rational approach.
“We are doing everything we can to support the industry and ensure operators continue implementing safety protocols, and we call on government to recognise this analysis and engage on it,” said Tshivhengwa.
While National liquor trader’s council (NLTC) convenor Lucky Ntimane said the analysis showed that the conventional wisdom on which government was making decisions on alcohol bans and proposed tighter liquor regulations was flawed.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is shattering our country. We do not believe that implementing continuous bans on alcohol is the answer, and this analysis clearly shows the need for a more balanced approach.”
Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) CEO Cas Coovadia said the analysis brought important context to the current debate on alcohol in SA.
“It is critical that we maintain full economic activity and we have raised concerns about how the actions taken regarding alcohol have affected the liquor industry, which is so fundamentally important to our economy. We need a different discussion on how to move forward to tackle Covid in an effective and sustainable manner.”