Editorial: Need new tactic to fight alcohol abuse

South Africans, to appropriate an oft-told joke, have a drinking problem: we can’t afford it.

Told with glass in hand in a suitably social setting, it’s a punchline worth a snigger at best, even if the truth is far from it.

Results of a newly-published paper by University of Cape Town researchers suggest we are only too happy to pay good money for our favourite tipple, and in immodest quantities as well.

Some 14% of 20 000 adults surveyed admitted to binge-drinking, defined as five drinks or more a day.

The numbers have experts worried, especially since they believe the true extent is far higher, taking into account the fact that the government received excise duties four times more than those based on the 4.8 billion alcoholic drinks consumed by survey respondents.

In the South African context, booze is big business.

According to a report in The Herald today, the taxman can expect a total windfall of R20.8-billion this year, thanks to alcohol sales.

The industry contributes 3.9% to GDP, or R139-billion.

Many livelihoods depend on it.

On the other hand, we are told that the costs of drinking are three times higher.

These findings are likely to spur government into action through legislation, in much the same way it targeted – and continues to aim at – the tobacco industry.

In which case, a big battle lies ahead, with the recent adoption of a sugar tax perhaps providing a foretaste.

But if government wants to change the way South Africans view alcohol, it will need a more thoughtful approach than topping up sin taxes each year.

Clearly, this tactic hasn’t worked and one wonders how it will serve the anti-sugar drive.

Alcohol abuse is a national scourge –- our roads and hospitals are testament.

But officials must stop deluding themselves. Paying for it has never been a problem.

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