LIKE MANY of you, I’m sure, I am a big fan of the Sunday Times’ Chris Barron, especially the Q&A interviews he does on their op-ed page every Sunday. Sunday’s was particularly good. The subject was the government’s proposed ban on advertising alcohol and he was talking to Aaron Motsoaledi, the minister of health, who is driving the idea.
I need to declare here a member of my family is involved in the liquor industry. I just want to say, though, what I want to say.
I violently object to being told what to do. This is not Australia. Barron’s interrogation of the minister didn’t really get very far but it at least made clear two things. First, the minister doesn’t have his own policy but has copied it from the World Health Organisation. "The whole move," he said, "is driven by the World Health Organisation, from whom we take most of our policies." It’s not always good to have other people doing our thinking for us.
Second, and more reasonably, he countered Barron’s suggestions that drink makers advertise mainly to increase market share. "You increase market share by making sure that those who do not yet drink, the youngsters, start drinking." I think he’s right. But he gets so much else wrong.
First of all, I wish he would be more open about his own experience with alcohol. I don’t mean that he is hiding a dark personal secret, but in my experience people who oppose the advertising of alcohol are more often than not simply opposed to drinking it altogether. That is often rooted in childhood experience.
An advertising ban is a very blunt and clumsy instrument with which to treat a very easily defined and narrow social problem. The fact is that the majority of South Africans do not drink at all. And of those who do, a statistically very small minority abuse it. An alcohol abuse policy that doesn’t target that minority is destined to become a form of abuse in itself.
The result can already be learned from history. Prohibition in the US resulted in a wave of organised crime of unprecedented proportions and drove the consumption of alcohol underground. That’s what making things illegal, illicit or indecent does. Ask HIV/AIDS researchers how hard they have had to work to bring the condition to the surface.
Of course, Motsoaledi is right when he challenges Barron thus: "Are you telling me that if alcohol advertising is banned then the economy will collapse? They said that when we banned tobacco advertising, but it didn’t happen."
But I wonder what has happened to smoking statistics since then. Sadly, you’ll believe what you’ll believe, depending on your predisposition to take one side or the other. There is no clarity once the Inquisition moves in. There is only victory or defeat.
The economy won’t collapse. But to the extent that brands do advertise to grow market share, an advertising ban would more or less freeze their market share where it is now. It will do absolutely nothing to slow the market and even less, if possible, to stop abuse. Abuse needs abuse programming, not a legal blanket. And if the minister thinks he can stop kids drinking (or smoking) with a simple wave of the legislative hand, he is deluded. Parents who drink have kids who drink. Add to that a profit margin driven by a degree of prohibition and our sophisticated criminal class will be all over the booze market in ways the good minister cannot now even imagine. Good luck.
I’M DELIGHTED to be able to report that one of Business Day’s stalwarts over the past two decades, Hilary Joffe, is returning to the newspaper next month, as Deputy Editor. Hilary has been doing her national service at Eskom, and reeling her back into the newspaper has been a protracted affair. I could not be more pleased with myself, or grateful to my indulgent shareholders.
OUR ONLINE subscription rates have been criticised as being way too high and out of line with newspapers abroad. That’s often because people compare us with general interest papers such as The Times in London or are just angry that we now charge for digital access at all. But we started high because we embedded a digital replica of the day’s newspaper (an e-paper) in all our subs. This week we will begin to offer a package without the e-paper for just R175 a month. I hope it puts us back in your good books.