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The state wants to raise the legal drinking age to 21. Here’s why

2016-10-04 05:50

The government wants to crack down on alcohol abuse by raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 and making distributors legally liable if they deal irresponsibly.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies introduced the National Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016 at a media conference yesterday.

The bill was approved by Cabinet for wider public consultation last week.

Davies acknowledged that the liquor industry was significant and provided important contributions to the gross domestic product and employment opportunities, but then added: “It is a regulated industry for good reasons.”

Alcohol abuse was increasing in South Africa, with 5 billion litres of alcohol consumed a year. On average, South Africans consumed between 10 and 12.4 litres of alcohol a person a year. The global average was 6.2 litres.

He also referred to the high incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome and the fact that 41.6% of all treated injuries in hospitals were associated with alcohol use.

“You can see that it is a significant problem in South Africa,” said Davies.

He said that alcohol abuse cost the country an estimated R37.9 billion a year due to hospitalisation and accidents, among others.

The bill proposed four new measures: raising the age at which alcohol may be consumed legally; making distributors and wholesalers civilly liable; restricting advertising and outlets; and strengthening regulation.

Legal drinking age

The bill proposes that the age at which alcohol may be bought and consumed be raised from 18 to 21.

“We’re not putting it forward as a dogmatic certainty,” said Davies.

In countries where the legal drinking age had been raised, the number of accidents involving young people decrease. The opposite happened in countries where the drinking age was raised, for example in New Zealand, where it came down from 20 to 18.

There was a physiological argument behind the proposal: studies indicate that people’s brains continued developing until their mid-20s, therefore alcohol’s effect on brain development was worse among younger people.

Civil liability

Davies said there were two forms of civil accountability.

First, distributors and manufacturers who sold alcohol to unlicensed outlets could be held responsible if a person was subsequently involved in a crime.

“The supply needs to be choked off to the illegal outlets,” said Davies. “That could be a deterrent.”

Second, legal distributors who served alcohol to patrons already over the limit could be held civilly liable if that person committed a crime.

Limited advertising and distribution

The bill also stated that billboards advertising liquor would not be allowed near transportation facilities, such as stations.

“The density and concentration of liquor outlets, especially in residential areas [must be looked at].”

Alcohol licences would not be granted at places near schools, churches and other similar organisations.

“There will be more tolerance for a place that is not only for drinking, like restaurants, as opposed to outright drinking holes,” said Davies.

Strengthen the regulator

The bill proposed the creation of a national liquor regulator, which would take over many of the functions that currently fall on the minister. This would require the different spheres of government to work together.

Davies said there were 45 days from yesterday in which the public could comment on the bill.

He hoped that all of society, not just the relevant industries, would provide input.

“We want a national debate,” he said.

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February 17 2019