A BILL proposing that the purchasing age of alcohol be raised from 18 to 21 years will be presented to the Cabinet before the end of the year, along with a bill for restrictions on alcohol advertising, says Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini.

Further limiting the sale of alcohol could have huge repercussions for the industry, already reeling from the prospect of a complete ban on advertising.

A study last year by marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk found that the media industry stood to lose R2bn in revenue if alcohol advertising were banned - amounting to the loss of about 2500 jobs.

However, South African Breweries (SAB), the second-largest beer producer in the world, said yesterday it had found it difficult to engage with the government on its planned restrictions.

While questions remain how effectively social ills would be addressed through reduced advertising, Ms Dlamini yesterday insisted alcohol was an entry to drugs and unlawful behaviour among young South Africans.

Speaking at a social protection and community development ministerial cluster briefing in Pretoria yesterday, Ms Dlamini defended the government's moves to counter substance abuse.

"However, alcohol remains the most common primary drug of choice across the country and it results in a burden of risks including accidents, injuries, teenaged pregnancies as well as unprotected sexual behaviour which leads to HIV transmission," she said.

Substance abuse contributed to crime, domestic violence, family dysfunction and other forms of social problems, she said.

An interdepartmental task team on drug abuse - which included officials from the departments of health, social development and trade and industry - had made progress on addressing substance abuse, Ms Dlamini said.

Draft bills on zero tolerance for drunk driving and for managing the spread and licensing of shebeens are also due for the Cabinet's consideration by the end of the year, Ms Dlamini said.

Should the package of legislation lead to job losses, SA should consider whether it was willing to tolerate a sector "destroying other people just to have jobs".

Questioned about the effect advertising restrictions would have on youth drinking when young people abused harder drugs despite an absence of marketing, Ms Dlamini said alcohol contributed to the abuse of other drugs.

Children started at a very young age with "sweet" drinks, began drinking hard liquor and then "graduated" to drugs.

"That is what the research is telling us," she said.

Zane Dangor, special adviser to Ms Dlamini and a member of the interdepartmental task team, said it needed to be taken into consideration that "a whole lot of job losses (were) associated with alcohol abuse".

Deputy Social Development Minister Bongi Ntuli said 18 was too young to be drinking, as at that age people were "still not matured". Youth drinking was risking the creation of a "lost generation" and children should spend more time being educated and not "becoming alcoholics even before they are 20".

Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use director Adrian Botha said yesterday that raising the age of purchasing to 21 would have little effect on those already abusing alcohol at the ages of 12 or 13.

The government should concern itself with effectively implementing existing laws, and with targeted interventions that recognised that substance abuse was largely driven by social deprivation, not advertising, he said.

A prohibition on advertising "had a whole lot of negatives and no positives", and would not address substance abuse.

It would also have a big effect on funds going into sport and the arts, Mr Botha said.

When tobacco advertising was banned - a much smaller sector than alcohol - the effect was somewhat mitigated by the emergence of the cellphone sector at the same time, he added.

Now, there were no new sectors "waiting in the wings" and there was an economic slowdown, Mr Botha said.

SAB spokesman Benedict Maaga said yesterday the Department of Social Development had consistently refused to engage with them on advertising and consumption age limits.

This was despite SAB agreeing with the government that alcohol abuse in SA was at an unacceptable level, he said.

"Rather than imposing restrictions on licensing, alcohol advertising, increasing consumption age limits and raising taxes on alcohol - which have largely failed to have the desired results internationally - SAB believes that the more effective way to address alcohol abuse is through targeted interventions focusing on those drinking patterns that are associated with harm," Mr Maaga said.

gernetzkyk@bdfm.co.za