Sarah Badat
Sarah Badat

How is alcohol good for you?

I recently tweeted my views on the proposed ban on alcohol advertising. The ban, which I fully support, would see to it that alcohol no longer makes its regular appearance across multiple media channels. That means no more beer ads during a sports game. No more of those cider ads featuring hip-looking youth traversing the desert for appropriate refreshment. None of those inspirational whiskey ads showing men who are “winning” at life, and certainly no more of those vodka ads where scantily-clad females abound, dancing the night away on a rooftop somewhere in the urban jungle. Yes, I am all for the abolition of alcohol advertising, not because I’m an uptight religious conservative, but simply because I can no longer stand the spectacle that alcohol brands are making of themselves amid increasing research showing the detrimental health and social cost of alcohol consumption.

The responses to my twitter ramblings showed me a couple of things. Firstly, I noticed a strong sense of denial among respondents regarding the “drinking problem” that I believe we as a country have developed. Secondly, I was disappointed by my respondents’ complete inability to engage with the notion of “individual choice” and the accompanying illusion of “free wil”.

The more I quoted statistics, describing the estimated health and social cost of alcohol misuse in this country (R9 billion in 2009), the increase in alcohol addiction especially among the working-class poor, the relationship between alcohol abuse and domestic violence and child abuse; the more I was met with responses like “Have u ever been abused because of an AD? I’ve never, don’t know 1 person that has”. Needless to say, I wanted to cry. Where have our minds gone?

There appears to be a rampant inability to accept accountability for our own actions. We demand accountability and transparency from the people who govern us and the brands we consume; and we have come to enjoy and even relish in, the exposition of corruption in whatever form it may take. However, in doing so, we’ve become lost in the spectacle of it all, resembling a kind of mob. People that stand about voraciously licking their lips in anticipation of a beheading.

The point that no rational citizen can deny after looking at the evidence is that alcohol misuse is increasing, and this increase is having detrimental effects on our health, safety and wellbeing. The glamour associated with alcohol production and consumption is masking the questions we need to be asking about the production of alcohol in this country and the effects of its misuse on individuals and communities.

The middle-class “free will” attitude to policy and legislation that I encountered on twitter neglects the interests of the working-class poor, who are driven to alcohol abuse by a range of socio-economic factors we cannot even begin to comprehend in our bourgeoisie vocabulary. Studies are showing that women and children in poor communities in South Africa are especially vulnerable to violence and abuse relating to alcohol use. Research indicates that the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome on the wine-farms in the Western Cape is the highest in the world. And people still want to make this issue about individual choice and “free will”? I’m sorry but I can’t buy that argument.

We need to stop making this policy debate a human-rights issue. The view that the proposed advertising ban curtails our rights is extremely misguided. Nobody can deny the effects of advertising on human belief and behaviour. Routine alcohol consumption is portrayed as constituting an essential part of a normal South African life and as being a necessary component to have a good time with friends. Bizarrely, we are even urged to believe that alcohol consumption can bring us together, as one big happy family.

I’d be interested to know the advertising budgets of the alcohol worlds’ big players. I imagine they are astronomical and I’d like to think they could be directed in other more meaningful ways, to change the lives of the people their product is hurting. I’d also like to see you middle-class craft beer connoisseurs stop trying to defend the kind of behaviour that has detrimental effects on the lives of so many and to consider them when you think of the proposed ban. Nobody is saying you can’t drink any more. We’d just like you to stop trying to convince the rest of us it’s a) a good idea and b) an important expression of your human rights.

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