Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE Western Cape provincial government has tabled a controversial proposal that could lead to a steep increase in the price of alcohol in SA, as part of efforts to curb alcohol abuse.

The provincial government’s green paper on reducing alcohol-related harms was gazetted this week, and has been made available for public comment.

Some of the interventions include lobbying national government to increase the price of alcohol through increasing excise tax and/or introducing minimum unit pricing, tightening definitions and regulation of ales and beer, and implementing a tracking system of liquor products.

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The provincial government is also proposing reducing easy access to alcohol, especially to underage drinkers, by limiting trading hours in some instances or ensuring ID verification at purchase points, and a focus on the entire value chain — including responsible consumption, responsible production, distribution and trade.

The provincial government says this would be achieved through clamping down on illegal distribution channels and outlets.

The national government has also been paying close attention to the problem of alcohol abuse and has put forward measures to curb it, including the controversial plan to increase the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has been pushing for more stringent measures, such as banning alcohol advertising.

The provincial government believes making alcohol unaffordable to young people in particular will help in reducing alcohol abuse.

According to the green paper, alcohol pricing policies are among the most effective alcohol prevention strategies.

"This is widely supported by research, including cross-cultural studies," the paper says.

"Currently alcohol products in SA are more affordable than in most low- and middle-income countries in the context of household income.

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"A South African study of price elasticity for alcohol concludes that a policy targeting the price of alcohol would have significant effects in curbing alcohol demand, and that effects are likely to be greater for poorer households and young people, who are more responsive to price changes, than for richer ones."

The South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) Western Cape director David Fourie said on Tuesday that increasing the price of alcohol was not the way to go.

"The majority of people do not abuse alcohol, it is only a few, and to penalise others because of a small group of people does not make sense," he said.

"If someone is abusing alcohol they become addicted and they will do everything to support that addiction … this could encourage illegal activities.

"People who drink for social reasons will just stop buying alcohol [if prices increase]."

Fourie said curbing alcohol abuse required a holistic approach focusing on changing attitudes and educating people on the harms of alcohol abuse.

Michael Mpofu, spokesman for Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, said that the draft policy was the result of extensive research and input from a diverse public sector working group, commissioned by the Western Cape government.

The policy was intended to guide the government’s approach to the regulation of alcohol in the province, Mpofu said.

"Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug countrywide. In 2013, it was recognised as the third leading risk factor for death and disability in SA, following unsafe sex and obesity," he said.

"It is also a dominant substance of abuse in the Western Cape. Cases of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder recorded in the Western Cape are among the highest in the country.

"It is for this reason that alcohol-related harms reduction has been identified by the Western Cape government as a game changer — a key area of focus in the current term of office."