Alcohol consumption is associated with various public health problems. These include high rates trauma-related injuries and deaths. In South Africa, around 62,000 people die annually for alcohol-related causes. Most of these are personal injury and trauma.
Alcohol-related trauma from interpersonal injuries and traffic accidents represents a proportion of admissions to emergency units In South Africa.
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In countries such as the United States, policies that restrict the supply, acquisition, and sale of alcohol are effective in reducing excessive consumption and associated social and public health challenges. But implementing these policies in South Africa has been a challenge. In the past, South Africa has tried to regulate the labeling and advertising of alcohol. But the country does not yet have comprehensive alcohol policies.
One of the reasons for this delay is strong opposition from the alcohol industry, citing economic impacts.
Covid-19-related alcohol regulations provided an unprecedented real-world experiment to put alcohol regulation on the political agenda.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African government has implemented intermittent bans on alcohol and restrictions. The goal was to ease the burden on people with alcohol-related trauma in hospitals when many patients were admitted with severe Covid-19. These regulations proved the benefits of reducing alcohol consumption in the South African healthcare system.
The restrictions also highlighted who the influential players were in the alcohol regulation space and the strategies they used to protect their interests. In our recent article We analyze media reports to identify these actors. We also look at the strategies they employed and what this means for alcohol regulation in the future.
Who are the key players?
As a national broadcaster, SABC has a public interest mandate and offers free newsletters. News24, on the other hand, is a digital-only standalone platform. It has the highest reach in South Africa. Together these platforms are widely used and current. They capture the perspectives of various actors.
The media platforms we analyzed featured a variety of stakeholders: government departments, the alcohol industry (manufacturers, retailers, small and medium-sized businesses), alcohol industry associations, political parties, non-governmental organizations, and academics.
The government and the alcohol industry were the most prominent actors represented in the media. News platforms differed in the way they reported the perspectives and strategies of these actors. News24 predominantly reported on actors and perspectives geared towards the alcohol industry. SABC News was more government oriented.
We also looked at the strategies these stakeholders used to influence regulation.
The alcohol industry’s approach was consistent and well coordinated. He presented a coherent message using a wide range of avenues. These included lobbying political parties and representatives, litigating against the government, questioning the evidence about the benefits of alcohol restrictions, and proposing alternative policies. Industry players used emotive language and framed the regulations as affecting small companies.
The most prominent argument against regulation was the economic impact. Industry repeatedly quoted large, and often unproven, numbers for job gains and losses.
The tactics employed by the alcohol industry are not new. The tobacco and food industries They have used Similary tactics in the past to block or weaken health policies in South Africa and internationally.
Government actors typically assumed a defensive position, mainly using evidence. But they lacked cohesion.
Different government ministries sought to use the regulations to promote the interests of their own departments. For example, the regulations were inserted to reduce alcohol-related trauma. But the police and transport ministries emphasized the benefits for crime prevention Y safe road.
South Africa’s reliance on prohibition to address alcohol-related problems highlights several system failures, including health, road safety, law enforcement, and crime prevention.
There was a strong academic voice from the South African Medical Research Council which aimed to counter industry rhetoric with empirical evidence. The academics also attempted to present sustainable policy changes as an alternative approach to a post-Covid-19 world.
But the media predominantly presented a polarized narrative.
Regulations implemented as part of the Covid-19 shutdowns have presented valuable lessons for alcohol regulation in general. They also highlighted the power and degree of opposition from the alcohol industry. Whether these regulations translate into sustainable policy change will depend on how, if at all, the strong voice of industry is countered.
Evidence, advocacy, and cohesive policy are crucial to instigating and sustaining policy change. The Covid-19-related alcohol regulations were an opportunity to gain public support and put alcohol regulation on the agenda. But it may have been a missed opportunity. The rhetoric of the alcohol industry dominated. And the voices advocating for sustainable alcohol policies beyond Covid-19 were inconsistent.
There may be even more restrictions in the future. So it is not too late for the voice for public health to seize this opportunity.