Stop shifting blame to drinkers: lobby groups to alcohol industry

Lobby groups argue that the use of 'drink responsibly' messages from the alcohol industry are not helping to reduce alcohol abuse

03 July 2020 - 07:31
By sipokazi fokazi AND Sipokazi Fokazi
Alcohol experts say it's time for the alcohol industry to take responsibility for producing and distributing alcohol instead of shifting that responsibility and consequences to consumers.
Image: Flickr Alcohol experts say it's time for the alcohol industry to take responsibility for producing and distributing alcohol instead of shifting that responsibility and consequences to consumers.

The alcohol industry’s use of “responsible drinking” messages should be challenged as it shifts the blame of irresponsible drinking and its social ills from producers to alcohol users, leading experts on alcohol have said.

Professor Richard Matzopoulos, co-director of the South African Medical Research Council’s burden of diseases unit, described the use of such messaging as “nonsense”.

“From a harm perspective there is nothing 'responsibly' about drinking at all. It’s just an extent of harm that it causes. I think it’s an idea that is being pushed by the industry and we should be careful about the language that we use,” he said.

“Drinking at responsible levels is nonsense. We can talk about drinking at moderate levels or levels that minimise harm or reduce harm, but there is no responsible level of drinking. The whole notion about responsible drinking is something we need to question. So the points about shifting the responsibility to users are well taken,” he said.

Matzopoulos was addressing the first joint discussion of a civil society campaign to lobby a “new normal” in which the availability of alcohol is permanently reduced to prevent alcohol-related harms, including interpersonal and gender-based violence (GBV) and murders. The virtual meeting, which was held on Thursday, had been initiated by Sonke Gender Justice after a spike of GBV cases since the easing of the lockdown.

He said pricing increases through excise tax and increasing the minimum drinking age were interventions that could be put in place.

Dr Laurine Platzky, who is a board member of the Western Cape Liquor Authority, said the messaging of drinking responsibly needed to be questioned.

Speaking in her personal capacity, she said: “When we developed the white paper on alcohol harms reduction in the Western Cape government, we said the whole value chain needed to be challenged.”  

She said it must not just be the consumer who is being persuaded by the alcohol industry to drink responsibly, but the whole responsibility messaging needs to go from producer to the consumer. The industry needed to ask if it produced and distributed alcohol responsibly. Platzky said often it was licensed off-consumption outlets that sold stock to unlicensed establishments.

Platzky said statistics exposed the harms of alcohol abuse, with the bulk of injuries happening on weekends and on pay days when there is a high incidence of binge drinking.

While reducing alcohol availability would not necessarily stop GBV, restrictions would make an impact.

She said the campaign also needed to change the narrative from the myths that it greatly contributed to the economy and created jobs, when alcohol harms actually cost the country more.

“Alcohol costs the country more than it is making a profit. We must start figuring out the costs to society and to the economy, in particular the health sector. And we have to get that narrative changed because at the moment the industry has this narrative that they create so many jobs ... it’s just like the sugar tax. So we need to change the narrative through this campaign,” said Platzky.

Maurice Smithers, board chair of the Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa), said the campaign is not calling for the ban of alcohol, “but we are simply calling for better managed alcohol in the interest of a safer alcohol environment, one that is safer for people who are drinking as well as the people around them”.

“We encourage organisations to become partners because through doing that we develop a louder voice as an organisation when we are engaging with government on our views on alcohol,” he said.

Smithers said the campaign would, however, not accept any organisation that is linked to, or funded by, the alcohol industry.

Adele Kirsten from Gun Free South Africa said the alcohol reduction campaign could take lessons from the campaign for stricter gun laws about two decades ago, which had one purpose: “to have stricter gun laws.”

“It allowed what we call 'one message, many voices'. So there was a single message that we need stricter gun laws. It allowed the children’s rights organisations and the policing organisations to come into the conversation with their specific voice and angle but there was a single goal and single message,” she said.