New booze laws could make tavern owners liable for drunk's behaviour

24 May 2015 - 02:00 By ANDRÉ JURGENS and CHANTELLE BENJAMIN

A drunk man downs another beer in an unlicensed tavern and then knocks over a pedestrian on the way home. Who is liable for damages?

The beer manufacturer, distributor and owner of the tavern all bear responsibility for the harm and damage caused by the drunk driver, according to several far-reaching proposals put forward by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies this week.

Davies's plan, which has already caused alarm, also includes a number of other controversial features - most notably, the hiking of the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

The National Liquor Policy was gazetted for public debate this week.

It raises concerns about the socioeconomic impact of alcohol abuse, the slow pace of transformation in the industry and efforts to police the industry. South Africans consume about five billion litres of alcohol a year, according to the Medical Research Council.

The proposals include:

  • The need to scrutinise goods "laced or mixed with alcohol" such as chocolates that are "easily available to young persons";
  • No serving of liquor to intoxicated people. "Should that happen and the intoxicated person is involved in a motor accident or crime related to substance abuse, the manufacturer, distributor and trader should bear liability for any harm or damages";
  • Liquor premises should be located at least 500m away from schools, places of worship, recreation, rehabilitation or treatment centres, residential areas and public institutions; and
  • Liquor licences should not be issued to petrol stations or places near public transport. Existing licences should be terminated within two years.
  • Local liquor store owners said the new rules would deter smaller investors.

Lawyer Danie Cronjé, a director of Liquor Law Services at Cluver Markotter, whose clients include national retailers and distributors, said it would be tough to police the new plans.

"It's going to be difficult to prove that a bottle-store staff member was aware that someone was drunk when he bought alcohol from their shop or that he was the cause of the accident," he said.

Cronjé said the rule that places that sell liquor must not be situated near "public institutions" was vague and would be difficult to implement.

Cronjé agreed that "making it more difficult to get a licence will probably affect the smaller players [more] than the bigger retailers who are able to get easy advice and assistance".

Frank Menezes, manager of Loco Liquor in Blairgowrie, Johannesburg, who has been in the industry for 20 years, said the rules favoured supermarkets and big players.

Menezes said it would be difficult for smaller liquor shops to comply with the BEE requirements, or the rules that liquor shops not be situated near a school or public institution.

"One bottle-store owner said he had been operating in an area for 20 years when a church suddenly opened in a building near to him. Would he now be required to move?"

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The policy document also calls for strict labelling of liquor products, tighter advertising regulations and a ban on selling items with a high alcohol content. Some p roducts used in cocktails, such as Stroh rum and absinthe, are up to 80% alcohol.

Trade and industry deputy director-general Zodwa Ntuli told the Sunday Times that the proposals placed a much stricter onus on the liquor industry to take responsibility for self-regulation.

"Alcohol abuse is still on the increase," warns the document, "leading to increasing levels of conflict in the family, violence, crime and alcohol-related diseases, sexual violence and high-risk sexual behaviours ... Currently, alcohol is easily available in an estimated 230000 liquor outlets in South Africa."

The document quotes 2004 data from the World Health Organisation, which estimated the cost of alcohol abuse in South Africa to be R19-billion - which, at that time, was 2% of the country's GDP.

South African alcohol beverage manufacturers, distributors and some retail chains are represented by the Association for Responsible Alcohol Use, a non-profit organisation.

CEO Dr Osborn Mahanjana said the laws might be well-intentioned, but they were problematic. " I have no problem with much of what they are proposing, but I think sometimes they make it too complicated," he said.

benjaminc@timesmedia.co.za, jurgensa@sundaytimes.co.za

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