THE BIG READ: Don't ban, educate
If we look at the experience of other countries before we leap, we'll see booze ad restrictions will not have the desired effect, writes Norman Reyneker
I would like to begin by empathising with the minister of health. Alcohol abuse and misuse is a terrible problem in this country with a raft of tragic consequences. But it is also a complex problem, which evidence shows cannot be solved easily with blunt measures such as severely restricting or banning alcohol advertising and sponsorships.
On the other hand, the evidence is clear that if we ban or restrict alcohol advertising and sponsorships, South Africa will experience job losses and it will have a substantially negative impact on the media and marketing industries in the country.
Perhaps we should consider what the result has been of similar bans and restrictions in other countries. Have they actually reduced alcohol abuse, drunk driving and teen drinking?
Let's start with France, renowned for its wine production and consumption. Indeed, the French consume more litres of alcohol per capita than those in the UK.
In 1991, the French government enacted the Loi Evin, banning alcohol advertisements on television and in cinemas, as well as sponsorship of sports and cultural events. There is strict control over content of messages and images, and mandatory inclusion in all advertisements of a message that alcohol abuse is dangerous to one's health.
A 1999 report by the French parliament evaluating the effectiveness of the interventions and bans concluded that no effect on alcohol consumption could be established, and they had not reduced high-risk drinking patterns.
The report showed that, prior to the introduction of the law, French alcohol consumption per capita had already decreased.
The slow decline in alcohol consumption was deemed not to correlate with the Loi Evin but with other factors. Furthermore, since the ban, risky drinking and repeat drunkenness had increased considerably among young people.
Even the French anti-alcohol NGO, the Anpaa, accepts that the effects of the law are "weak".
The French parliamentary report also examined the respective evolution in consumption and advertising spend in several countries and concluded that a link between the two cannot be demonstrated.
Despite this evidence, this ineffective ban remains in place.
In Norway, which has strictly no advertising for alcoholic beverages, the report found that consumption has been steadily increasing.
In Italy, where alcohol advertising is permitted, consumption is decreasing.
The Canadian situation is also highly instructive. Canada conducted studies of alcohol advertising bans which had been implemented in some of its provinces. In Manitoba, a seven-year long beer ad ban did not reduce beer sales, but actually increased them.
In Saskatchewan, a study concluded that the "change in legislation regarding alcohol advertising produced neither an abrupt, permanent nor a gradual permanent effect".
These international case studies do not surprise me. We know - and this is tried and tested - that advertising does not create consumption. Rather, it is used to differentiate among individual branded products; the aim is to use it to increase a brand's market share.
Since alcohol advertising does not create the desire to consume, banning or restricting advertising will not significantly reduce the overall consumption and alcohol-related harm will not automatically decline.
No causal link has been established between alcohol advertising and either harmful or excessive drinking or incidence of drunk driving. So if bans and restrictions will not work, what is the solution?
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are related to the complex interaction of biological, socio-cultural and psychological factors in the environment. Unfortunately there is no quick fix, no silver bullet which can solve these problems.
We believe that strong enforcement of current laws, a no-tolerance approach to offenders, heavy penalties, awareness and education programmes and strong partnerships between government and industry are an effective means to combat alcohol abuse.
The work of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research is instructive. This NGO is working in communities to establish sustainable programmes aimed at eliminating Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as a preventable disorder among newborn children in South Africa. Despite the disorder being endemic in many poor communities, the NGO's experience has been that, if mothers are convinced not to drink during pregnancy, they can give birth to healthy children.
All it requires is a direct 10-minute conversation between a pregnant mother and a trained and trusted community worker.
It will take many more interventions and programmes to make a real impact on alcohol abuse and its consequences in this country. But it does not mean that it should not be done.
Policy and interventions must be based on evidence that proves the effectiveness of such measures. The proposed restrictions and bans on alcohol advertising in this instance are not informed by such evidence and are likely, therefore, to render the ban ineffective in meeting the department's stated and laudable objectives.
I would like to ask the health minister and his department to look before they leap. We don't want to end up in a situation where we restrict or ban alcohol advertising to try and reduce alcohol abuse and instead destroy jobs while binge drinking, teen drinking and drunk driving continue without respite.
There are solutions, and the best way to find them is for all stakeholders to work together to find the most effective ways to stop alcohol abuse and encourage responsible drinking.
- Reyneker is corporate director of Brandhouse