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Proposed changes to drinking laws in South Africa – including raising the age to 21


The South African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA) has proposed significant changes to how alcoholic beverages are regulated and consumed in the country.

According to SAAPA, the recent Enyobeni Tavern tragedy where several underage drinkers passed away has reopened the debate around alcohol regulation and its abuse in South Africa.

In a recent weekly letter to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that South Africa’s drinking problem is primarily one of underage drinking. SAAPA argued that underage drinking is a symptom of a bigger problem that, unless recognised, appropriate solutions will not be found.

In his writing, the President suggested there should be a national debate on whether the drinking age should be raised from 18 to 21, said SAAPA.

The alliance has been calling on the government for years to address not only raising the drinking age to 21 but also to take an active stance in the prevention of substance abuse.

“What is needed is a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to addressing the issue. We already have a National Liquor Policy; what is needed is to put in place measures to make the policy recommendations into law,” said SAAPA.

On top of raising the drinking age to 21, SAAPA has called for the implementation of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) interventions:

  • An increase in excise taxes on alcoholic beverages;
  • The enactment and enforcement of bans or comprehensive restrictions on exposure to alcohol advertising (across multiple types of media) and;
  • The enactment and enforcement of restrictions on the physical availability of alcohol in sales outlets (via reduced hours of sale).

Raising the drinking age to 21 in South Africa has long been considered; however, progress on it has been slow.

SAAPA said that the proposal to increase the age is part of the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2016. The association said that the bill is standing dead still and has not progressed in any official capacity.

“We are tired of waiting for the government to pass the Liquor Amendment Bill – it is long overdue,” said SAAPA.

How close are we to a 21 drinking age?

In 2010, South Africa endorsed the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol which was adopted at the 63rd World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland, said SAAPA.

In the same year, Cabinet:

  • Established the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) to combat substance abuse, chaired by the Minister of Social Development, and;
  • Adopted a resolution calling on all spheres of government not to enter into partnerships with the liquor industry because it may compromise the government’s ability to effectively legislate effective alcohol control measures.

In 2013, the Department of Health tabled the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill, a bold initiative to ban all alcohol advertising and sponsorships to counter the ‘normalisation’ and ‘glamourisation’ of alcohol, said SAAPA. The Bill was, however, never released for public comment or sent to Parliament for consideration.

In 2016, Cabinet approved the new National Liquor Policy drafted by the Department of Trade and Industry. The policy identified weaknesses in the Liquor Act of 2003 and proposed changes to give effect to the three ‘best buys’ of the WHO Global Strategy of 2010 – limiting or banning alcohol advertising, reducing the availability of alcohol, and increasing the price of alcohol.

At the same meeting, a Liquor Amendment Bill, which would give effect to some of the recommendations of the new National Liquor Policy, was approved by Cabinet for release for public comment.

According to SAAPA, the Department of Trade and Industry initiated a public participation process from 2016 to 2017. However, before the Bill could be sent to Parliament for consideration, it reached a standstill.


Read: Why you should expect medical aid price hikes above inflation in South Africa – expert



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