Category Healthcare
SUB CATEGORIES General  |  HIV |  Medical Schemes | 

Drinking ourselves to death?

19 July 2004 Angelo Coppola

Kerry Cullinan writing in this two-part article for the Health-e News Service, reports that government claims its long-promised regulations aimed at curbing alcohol abuse will “soon” be published for public comment.

But how should it deal with excessive drinking when alcohol is so much part of South African culture?

A teenage girl dies after being smashed into by a car driven by a drunkard. A group of intoxicated youngsters carry in a bleeding friend, stabbed during a petty argument.

A tearful woman sits quietly while a nurse bandages the gash in her head inflicted by her drunk partner.

These alcohol-related incidents are common in hospital casualty units throughout South Africa.

They are the grim result of South Africa’s classification as one of the world’s hardest drinking nations, where 10-12 litres of pure alcohol per adult were consumed in 2000.

The point is, we just don’t know when to stop. A quarter to a third of all drinkers get drunk over weekends rather than enjoying a few quiet tipples, according to the SA Demographic and Health Survey.

The consequences of this heavy drinking are severe. In 2002, almost half the victims of "non-natural" deaths (mainly homicides and car accidents) were over the legal limit of 0.05g of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

Alcohol played a role in over half (53%) of all homicides, including 76.7% of stabbings, according to the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (NIMSS), which investigates the causes of “non-natural” deaths.

In 2000, up to half the people charged with "family violence" in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg said they were drunk at the time of the offence.

In De Aar in the Northern Cape, the mental development of one in 10 children has been permanently damaged by their mothers drinking while pregnant – one of the highest rates of foetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

“The social cost associated with alcohol abuse is conservatively estimated to be R9-billion, or one percent of our gross domestic product,” says Professor Charles Parry, who directs the Medical Research Council’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Group.

But how does government clamp down on alcohol abuse without becoming what Dr Chan Makan of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) describes as a "nanny state"?

ARA, which represents the country’s major liquor companies including SABMiller and KWV, supports a number of responsible drinking campaigns.

Most players agree that banning alcohol has not worked anywhere in the world. In apartheid South Africa, the selective ban on alcohol for black people gave rise to the hundreds of thousands of illegal shebeens that today are very difficult to regulate.

Even the SA National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA), which helps to rehabilitate alcoholics, believes that a ban on alcohol would be counter-productive.

Instead, says SANCA Durban’s Walter Petersen, communities need to be taught how to drink responsibly and the sale of alcohol to young people needs to be tightened up.

“The liquor trade seems to have targeted the most vulnerable, the youth,” says Petersen. “These so-called designer drinks are promoted as being different to hard alcohol.”

While he also supports warnings on the bottles, Petersen says the main weapon against excessive drinking is education, but that this is “a long term, slow moving process”.

Last year, the health department promised to publish regulations to "counter the intensive promotion of alcohol consumption", including "limiting advertising times for alcoholic products and introduction of warning labels on these products".

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