OPINION: Politics is the art of compromise

Norman McFarlane

The war of words between the alcohol industry and the government is hotting up, with both parties taking increasingly polarised positions.

On the face of it, the ban on alcohol sales makes absolute sense: the number of alcohol-related trauma cases presenting at emergency units in the public health sector, spiked dramatically after the ban was lifted at the start of lockdown level 3.

The national coronavirus command council (NCCC) – our de facto government, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – concluded that this surge in trauma cases would compromise the healthcare sector’s ability to treat the increasing number of Covid-19 infections, so the ban was reimposed. Problem solved.

It is abundantly clear that government sees it as a binary choice, but is this really an Occam’s Razor moment, or is the government’s response yet another example of unnecessary – and by now expected – heavy-handedness in a circumstance that could benefit from a more nuanced approach?

The continued ban on the sale of tobacco products has evinced outrage, even among people who do not smoke, but the alcohol sales ban has prompted far more widely spread outrage because far more people drink alcohol than smoke. The reasons for the two bans are also quite different.

Government’s view on the tobacco issue is that smoking will result in a poorer clinical outcome in the event that one contracts Covid-19. That the evidence submitted in support of this position in the recent high court challenge to the tobacco sales ban is widely seen as inconclusive, is beside the point. The high court ruled that because the ban was imposed with the intention of saving lives, whether or not it does, is academic. The logic behind the ban, is that the state must protect smokers against themselves, feeding the already prominent perception that we are governed by a nanny state. We are incapable of taking care of ourselves, so government must do so for us.

On the employment front, according to a 2011 Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries report, “40 000 people are dependent on the tobacco industry, mostly in the rural areas of South Africa”.

If we assume a conservative multiplier of four for the number of mouths each must feed, 160 000 people are directly or indirectly dependent on the alcohol industry for their survival.

The alcohol sales ban by contrast, affects a great many more people. University of Cape Town Visiting Professor of Wine Business, Michael Fridjhon, estimates that 600 000 people are directly dependent on the alcohol industry for their livelihoods. This figure includes those involved in the production, marketing, distribution and sale of alcohol products. If we take the conservative multiplier of four (like the tobacco industry) for the number of mouths that each must feed, 2.4 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on the alcohol industry for their survival.

Whereas the tobacco sales ban is predicated on reducing self-harm, the alcohol sales ban is predicated on reducing potential harm to others: possible denial of trauma centre support to Covid-19 patients.

The outraged reaction to the alcohol sales ban in many quarters goes something like this: “Why should we be denied our right to responsibly enjoy a few glasses of wine/beers/ciders in the safety and comfort of our own homes, because of the minority who cannot control their alcohol consumption?”

Although this a perfectly reasonable question, the answer is fraught with pitfalls and barnacles.

First off, alcohol abuse is hardly the preserve of any particular economic stratum in our society. It affects people from the indigent to the fabulously wealthy. The difference between these two extremes is only the quality of the alcohol that each abuses.

As much as there is a case for a more granular approach to the alcohol sales ban, the notion that it ought be area based – essentially the approach advocated by the Restaurant Association of SA (RASA) – is laughable, because of the inequity inherent in that approach. That ain’t going to watch with government, evidenced by the fact that government is still “considering” the RASA proposal.

Liquor licenses, broadly speaking, come in two flavours: off-consumption and on-consumption.

Off-consumption licensees include bottle stores, supermarkets, wine estate tasting rooms, and all other retail establishments licensed to sell alcohol to the public for consumption in their own homes (consumption of alcohol in public is to all intents and purposes, illegal).

On-consumption licensees would include taverns, restaurants, hotels, and any other establishments licensed to sell alcohol to people for consumption on the premises. Such establishments may not permit alcohol, opened or not, to be removed from the premises. Although there are no limits on sales to individuals, the limited opening hours dictate that over-consumption is highly unlikely. Having said that, there is an obligation on licensees to stop serving a patron who is obviously overindulging.

So, how about government permitting on-consumption alcohol sales only? This approach will kill a few birds with a single stone.

Although it will not see sales in the beleaguered alcohol industry returning to pre-pandemic levels, it will nonetheless make a significant contribution to industry revenue generation.

It will also provide a much needed boost to the restaurant industry which, like the alcohol industry, is in a state of terminal decline, with thousands of jobs at stake. It is entirely non-discriminatory in the context of either area or economic segment: be it a licensed restaurant in a leafy suburb or a licensed tavern or shebeen in a township, it will be allowed to sell alcohol to its patrons.

As long as licensees observe their statutory obligations, the chances of abuse are significantly reduced by comparison with unrestricted alcohol sales. In a time when societal support for what government is attempting to do in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic is rapidly dwindling, this compromise might swing the pendulum back.