OPINION: Why the alcohol ban is hard to swallow

17 April 2020 by Mary de Haas

OPINION – Regardless of personal feelings about the evils or otherwise of liquor and cigarettes, the case for lifting the current ban on legal access is very simple: either the financially hard-pressed state earns the sin tax revenues or the criminals, including organised crime networks, make a great deal of money out of inflated prices.

Temperance societies in early 20th century America were instrumental in persuading the government to ban alcohol sales. The results are well known. As in the Cape Flats today, where drugs are the commodity of choice, organised crime networks, backed up by bloody violence, ensured black market supplies kept flowing.

In South Africa, successive colonial and apartheid governments tried to stop black people from accessing “white” liquor and all other alcohol except government manufactured sorghum beer and that brewed at home for ritual family consumption.

As in America, this prohibition didn’t work: black people continued to brew their own beer and concoctions for commercial purposes, and to access “white” liquor – despite heavy punishment, including imprisonment, for transgressions (which, like pass law infringements, criminalised countless thousands of black South Africans).

One of the arguments used by those supporting the continued ban is that the sale of liquor will promote behaviour which ignores social distancing. Crucial as social distancing is, for many hundreds of thousands of South Africans living in crowded shacks and hostels, or even visiting busy public hospitals and clinics – let alone using taxis – it is already virtually impossible to observe.

Wearing masks is no solution unless there is water and soap to wash them with after using them (let alone washing hands). Hunger is becoming an even more serious problem for poor people, so whatever food they can afford will take priority over soap.

Even in the UK, where lockdown remains in force, wine and beer are still available in supermarkets.

Legalising the sale of liquor (even if only of, for example, different types of beer and wine) will not necessarily impact on social distancing if bars and taverns remain closed, or their operations are restricted (but that is another issue altogether for the government to decide on).

Why should beer or wine not be drunk in the privacy of one’s home?

Another argument relates to the link between alcohol consumption and the strain placed on medical services rendering casualty/emergency care. While alcohol may play a part in violence (and levels of domestic violence remain high despite the ban) the main causal factor in casualty admittance is probably road accidents.

Our road accident rate is abnormally high, not only because the general standard of driving is atrocious, but because far too many people get away with drinking and driving, causing accidents and deaths while under the influence.

That this driving persists reflects the abysmal failure of road traffic authorities to penalise people severely (as, for example, in the UK or Australia). Now is a good time to start clamping down on drunk driving, given the reduction of traffic on the road, and prevalence of road blocks, and continue checks when bans on liquor and travel are lifted. Zero tolerance should start with the regular testing of all taxi and bus drivers (and their licences and vehicles’ roadworthiness). A failure to ensure such regular checks is tantamount to criminal negligence given how many people rely on public transport.

High rates of alcoholism is a serious problem in South Africa, but it is one of long standing, exacerbated by years of lifestyle-linked advertising.

Like other forms of addiction (including gambling), alcoholism needs addressing, but through appropriate means, including by supporting organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

The ban on cigarettes is incomprehensible since – apart of the loss of tax revenue – nicotine-withdrawal symptoms can be severe. It is well known that smoking damages health, but authoritarian measures banning cigarettes have no place when people are already stressed through, for example, physical confinement and lack of outdoor exercise.

There is an element of hypocrisy in the banning of liquor since many in a position to do so would have stocked up before the ban (like those wheeling trollies loaded with liquor out of stores, who may be among those selling it).

Are all politicians now on the water wagon, or are their extravagant drinking tastes still being catered for?

It is yet another form of discrimination by elites against poor when they are penalised for brewing nutritious beer at home.

There is no good reason not to lift the ban on these tax-earning goods, especially lower alcohol-content drinks such as beers and wine.

However, any lifting of the ban will need to be carefully thought out, and accompanied by restrictions on sales which will minimise the risk of stocks being depleted by those determined to stockpile, possibly for their own commercial purposes.

Organised crime networks are already the main cause of violent crime in South Africa, and a continued blanket ban on alcohol and cigarettes can only strengthen their hand – and deprive the looted state coffers of desperately needed revenue.

Mary de Haas is the KZN Violence Monitor

Source: IOL at https://www.iol.co.za/mercury/news/opinion-why-the-alcohol-ban-is-hard-to-swallow-46828476