News / South Africa
The reinstated ban on alcohol has proved a difficult balancing act to prioritise both livelihoods and public health, with the South African Medical Research Council recently calling for relaxing the booze ban, but industry players saying the damage has been done.
South African Breweries (SAB) corporate affairs vice president Zoleka Lisa told The Citizen last week that the latest abrupt ban on alcohol sales puts the lives of one million people and 117,000 jobs across the industry’s value chain at risk.
The Ab-InBev liquor giant called for a more balanced solution to the issue of reducing pressure on the ICUs that would allow for a similar outcome, while protecting the livelihoods of the one million people that are being impacted by the alcohol ban.
But on Monday, Reuters reported an announcement that infrastructure upgrades and capital to the tune of R2.5 billion have been cancelled for this year, with another R2.5 billion being reviewed for 2021. This according to a statement by SAB finance vice president, Andrew Murray.
Infographic: Costa Makola
Ab-InBev provided a business update in light of the pandemic on 30 July, reporting volume declines of 32.4% in April, 21.4% in May, and a growth of 0.7% in June. In South Africa, revenue and volume declined by more than 60%.
The country’s second ban on alcohol sales is expected to impact results in the third quarter.
In the report, it explained that the ban on alcohol sales in South Africa and the rest of Africa generating “units under the worst case scenario”. It concluded “it was prudent to recognise a 2.5 billion USD non-cash goodwill impairment charge applying a 30% probability of occurrence of the worse case scenario.”
The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) believes the ban on the sale of alcohol “should not be a long-term solution,” and it is necessary to balance the risk of Covid-19 community transmissions increasing if the booze ban is relaxed with that of the livelihoods of South African citizens.
This is the opinion of SAMRC’s alcohol, tobacco and other drug research unit director Professor Charles Parry, who explained the importance of getting the balancing act of restaurants wanting to sell alcohol, and ensuring society’s health as a whole, just right.
However, the ban has taken its toll on the Ab-InBev alcohol giant, who reported R18 billion in revenue having been lost after the last ban, costing government R3.4 billion due to illicit trade during the last lockdown.
“We want to review the science and explore solutions together with government,” Lisa emphasised, adding that it too would help curb the spread by adhering to stipulated measures involving underage drinking, drunk driving, and social media marketing campaigns aimed at responsible consumption, among others.
This forms part of SAB’s “comprehensive plan that addresses the challenges of combatting the spread of the virus while ensuring responsible alcohol consumption.”
The SAMRC put forward ideas on how to achieve a balanced approach to the Ministerial Advisory Council on 7 July.
“One was a modelling of the effect of an eight week (temporary) sales ban on alcohol, and the other was a basket of interventions aimed at better regulating alcohol availability, drunk driving, and marketing of alcohol,” Parry explained.
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The following measures were suggested to be implemented when alcohol sales resume:
If these measures are not effective, Parry warned that a third temporary ban could be imposed.
Especially due to the fact that the illicit alcohol trade is not expected to result in nearly as many non-natural deaths than if the curfew was lifted.
“The illicit trade at the moment in all likelihood is almost entirely industrially produced products being sold illegally, but they are not contaminated products,” Parry said.
This is evident in the “huge drops” of trauma admissions and deaths during the booze ban.
Parry said the ban on liquor sales in addition to a curfew from 13 July has resulted in trauma admissions decreasing across five hospitals in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal by up to 83%.
The ban therefore did well to free up hospital beds as per government’s obligation. And, should the need for more beds arise, immediate interventions in the form of alcohol bans and curfews may need to be implemented again, explained SAMRC CEO Glenda Gray.
“To minimise the impact of alcohol on hospital admissions, alcohol usage requires control.”
So, when will the nation drink again?
Parry explained that now that capacity at hospitals has been increased, “we need to have discussions around going back to the basket of interventions to implement when alcohol sales resume.”
He strongly suggested not lifting the ban unless further restrictions are imposed and properly enforced, namely, measures 1, 2 and 3, 5, 6 and 10. Measures 4, 7, 8 and 9 should be considered after three months.
As the country inches closer towards the peak of infections, and a levelling off of cases is observed in some regions, opening up more sectors of the economy are becoming more viable.
This would mean stricter enforcement of mitigating measures people must take in public spaces. But it would also mean thousands of workers in the alcohol sector can once again make a living and support their families.
If alcohol sales are to resume, notably in the restaurant sector, Gray said emphasis must be on implementing measures to reduce Covid-19 transmissions.
“All venues need to ensure adequate ventilation and avoid congestion and crowding.”
The emphasis on enforcing effective measures to prevent the spread of the virus, in addition to curfews, can work in an environment where alcohol sales are legal.
“Livelihoods are also very important to good public health,” Parry explained.
“So we would support opening up alcohol sales again once the government can put in place some or all of the six measures referred to above.”
But this comes with terms and conditions – namely ensuring strict enforcement, ensuring the industry is compliant, that people drink safely, and that the resumption of alcohol sales does not impact hospital resources.
This may be too little too late for one of the country’s biggest excise tax contributors, and could put more jobs and the economy at further risk.
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