South Africa, it's time for a sober conversation

We are the sixth-highest consumers of alcohol globally according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
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South Africa, it's time for a sober conversation

It is time for us, as a nation, to focus our attention on the challenges related to our harmful drinking habits and behaviours. The scale of this is massive; we are the sixth-highest consumers of alcohol globally according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This is not a statistic that we could or should be proud of, and it begs for a national conversation.

To successfully address this challenge, we need to recognise a fundamental difference between the use of alcohol and the abuse of alcohol. This means we need realistic approaches – based on the realisation that alcohol abuse is the real problem, not alcohol itself. This was reinforced by the President in one of the many “Family Meetings” held during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within this context, underage drinking  comes to the fore. Studies indicate that effective management of behaviours associated with children and alcohol requires a combination of control and education.  Such a holistic approach highlights the dangers of alcohol abuse while encouraging behavioural change within an integrated and balanced regulatory framework for managing practices where necessary.

If we are to find sustainable solutions, we also need to understand that alcohol harm is part of a complex interaction of factors and root causes that include the triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment, as well as other critical social issues. This requires a whole-of-society, multi-stakeholder approach to reducing the harmful
consumption of alcohol.

A central player in this is the alcohol industry. Through, the industry has tackled the harmful consumption of alcohol head-on by investing over R450 million in targeted interventions focused directly on education and awareness around underage drinking, excessive drinking, drinking and driving/walking, responsible trading, and
the risks associated with drinking while pregnant. In addition, R200 million a year has been committed for the next five years to further support sustainable alcohol harm reduction.

But the industry is one part of a complex eco-system; critical societal issues can only be meaningfully addressed through the involvement of all relevant role-players. It’s clear that alcohol traders (whether on-site, off-site or online) play a major role in ensuring responsible trading and drinking. This includes not selling to or serving minors, clearly intoxicated individuals and pregnant women. The same ‘responsible trading’ argument can be applied to those involved in the marketing and communication of alcohol who need, for example, to avoid promoting the concept that excessive drinking is “cool”. Government can facilitate the co-creation and application of a set of minimum drinking guidelines and closer partnerships with the entire alcohol value chain and their related stakeholders.

And what of the role we play as (legal) alcohol consumers? As a drinker, do you know the limits and drink responsibly? Do you drink and drive? If you have young people in your home, are you conscious of the fact that you could unwittingly be playing a role in promoting underage drinking? Do you encourage your child to fetch a drink for you
from the fridge, or do you send your child to the nearest outlet to buy you alcohol? Our research shows that this exposure to alcohol at an early age inevitably leads to underage drinking.

So how do we change decades of habits with regards to irresponsible and excessive drinking? Do we need a cultural and behavioural shift that will lead to real and sustainable change? Ultimately, it’s going to take a collective national effort if we are to bring excessive drinking and underage drinking under control. We cannot continue to navigate a space with two extremes: excessive drinking on one extreme and an alcohol ban on the other. Somehow, we need to strike a balance. This means finding realistic solutions, through a process of engagement and negotiation, to the massive challenge we face as a people.

Our appeal as is for a more constructive approach to these challenges, where government, social workers, law enforcement, academics, health practitioners and the entire alcohol industry value chain sit down together and find common ground. Because if ever there was a time for some sober thinking around the use and abuse of alcohol, it is now.


South Africa faces significant challenges related to alcohol consumption, being the sixth highest consuming country globally. To tackle this, the distinction between alcohol use and abuse must be recognised, with a focus on excessive and underage drinking. A multi-stakeholder approach is necessary, involving the alcohol industry, traders, marketers, and government. A cultural and behavioural shift is needed to address irresponsible drinking, and collective efforts are crucial to find realistic solutions. has invested significantly in education and awareness to drive behavioural change. Overall, a national conversation and collaboration are needed to combat harmful alcohol consumption effectively.

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