New Data Analysis Reveals Surprising Insights About Alcohol Harm in South Africa

Cape Town, 8th April 2021: A new analysis of government crime and trauma admissions data released today reveals surprising insights into the country’s relationship with alcohol and the widely held belief that it is among the worst in the world.
The analysis raises fresh questions about the evidence being relied on to support bans on alcohol sales and what should be done next.
The data analysis, led by independent data expert Ian McGorian of Silver Fox Consulting, in collaboration with Professor Mike Murray from the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science and with financial support from Distell, examined publicly available data sources to dig into the numbers behind the headlines. The analysis was peer reviewed by Professor Graham Barr, Emeritus Professor in the department of Statistical Sciences at the University of Cape Town.
Key findings included:
• Trauma cases in SA under lockdown dropped 60%. Other countries without an alcohol ban also experienced a similar phenomenon, including the UK (-57%), Ireland (-62%), Italy (-56.6%) and USA (-54%), raising questions about the efficacy of bans on alcohol.
• Alcohol is often cited as the leading factor in violent crime, but the SAPS Annual Report 2019-2020 shows that alcohol is confirmed in a small percentage of cases: 5.4% of sexual offences, 5.3% of assaults, 6.7% of murders, 6.9% of attempted murders and 11.9% of assault Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH).
• South Africa ranks 56th in the world for alcohol consumption per capita according to the World Health Organisation 2018 report, suggesting the country is not an outlier for alcohol consumption on a global scale. SA Liquor Brand Owners Association (SALBA) chairperson Sibani Mngadi said the industry was acutely aware of some of the realities and harms associated with the irresponsible consumption of alcohol by some consumers, as well as the pressure frontline healthcare personnel experienced during surges of COVID-19. The analysis was not intended to dispute this, but open 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,” said Mngadi. “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.”
At the same time, the whole alcohol value chain, from retailers to glass manufacturers, had been damaged by the alcohol bans and the same would potentially be true of more stringent liquor regulations. Mngadi said it was critical to have an objective analysis of the data being used to justify such actions, and any restrictions should be evidence based. The analysis showed the assumption that alcohol was a leading cause of trauma admissions was not supported by the data – using official, publicly available statistics for anyone to scrutinise. Alcohol restrictions did not have a significant effect on trauma admissions over and above the effect of the curfew, the analysis showed. Anecdotal examples of COVID-19 safety protocols being flouted in conjunction with the consumption of alcohol showed the need for improved enforcement, and the industry had been exemplary in assisting authorities to drive compliance.
“We believe the results of the in-depth analysis that has been undertaken are revealing.
“Let’s just take trauma as one example. 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.
“Further, it is clear that mobility tracks hospital admissions, and trauma admissions drop when people are at home and under curfew rather than being out and about. Similarly, contact crimes fell during the first lockdown in South Africa,” Mngadi said.
He said that restricting mobility through curfews, curbing gatherings and other protective measures including hygiene and sanitation have been recognised globally as the most effective approach to halting the spread of COVID-19.
Mngadi said the banning of alcohol sales for home consumption over the Easter Weekend, while at the same time increasing the size of permitted gatherings made even less sense as a means of reducing the risk of new COVID-19 infections, and suggested the government was not taking a scientific approach in its decision making.
National Liquor Traders 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 livelihoods of many hundreds of thousands of traders were at stake as a result.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is shattering our country, its people and the economy, and we are dismayed by the loss of lives. But 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. We have worked with the liquor industry to put in place a number of initiatives to reduce the harm caused by alcohol abuse, ensure compliance with COVID-19 protocols and liquor licence conditions amongst traders.”
Ntimane said the liquor industry had made a number of proposals to government to support in managing the risk of a COVID-19 resurgence.
“We have asked for improved enforcement of regulations relating to alcohol sales, including strict adherence to licence conditions and amendments to the regulations to address the lack of enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.
“We firmly believe that these alternatives are important and will go a long way to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19, while protecting livelihoods.”
Distell CEO Richard Rushton said the industry was simply asking that an objective view be taken of the data in order 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. 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.”
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. This analysis of existing data suggests that the alcohol bans cannot be the only factor in the reduction in trauma admissions we have seen, but they are having an extremely negative impact on the industry and sectors such as hospitality and tourism that rely on it. We need a different discussion on how to move forward to tackle COVID in an effective and sustainable manner. It is critical for us, as a country, to use all available research and data when considering issues related to the pandemic.”
Business Leadership SA CEO Busisiwe Mavuso said the bans on the alcohol industry could have been better managed, having resulted in more than 220 000 job losses with billions of rands in tax lost to the fiscus while the uncertainty for alcohol producers as a result of the bans was a real problem.
“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 data analysis by the alcohol industry is an important intervention and must be taken seriously as we move forward.”
The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) said it had previously written to the government expressing concern about the impact of restrictions on alcohol trading on its liquor retailer members. The CGCSA said it had and continued to stress the need for decisions with such far-reaching consequences – such as banning liquor trading by offsite liquor retailers yet allowing those selling for on-site consumption to continue trading – to be made transparently, with the evidence supporting them shared with the industry and the public. The rationale for such decisions, backed by evidence, had yet to be shared by decision makers.
The CGCSA planned to carry out a comprehensive impact assessment survey to produce fact-based evidence of how its liquor retailer members and the value chain have been affected by successive restrictions on alcohol trading. CGCSA said it hoped the survey would help the government to reconsider the way it has so far been implementing restrictions on alcohol trading.
“We stand firm in our principles to implement targeted interventions through partnerships with government to save lives and livelihoods and combat the social ills related to alcohol abuse,” said Rico Basson, Vinpro MD.
“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 CEO Mike Arnold said: “This in-depth analysis is most welcome given the devastating impact the alcohol bans have had on companies across the alcohol supply chain, including Consol. 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 pandemic.”
The Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) CEO Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa said the tourism industry was desperate to get fully back onstream in order 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.

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