The arrogance of government towards South Africa’s mass media is quite staggering, writes Chris Moerdyk. On top of wanting to ban alcohol advertising, the Department of Social Development is finalising a set of instructions to all national and provincial government departments to regulate and restrict their interaction and relationships with the liquor industry.
This follows a letter a year ago from Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini to all provincial premiers, instructing them not to “partner with any company in the liquor industry, even in programmes that the industry describes as part of their own initiatives to reduce alcohol-related harm”.
But in her letter, Dlamini said that while the government would “engage with the liquor industry as a key stakeholder to develop policy and legislation to reduce alcohol-related harm”, there should be no partnering with the alcohol industry. This was because “when government partners with the industry it tends to improve the brand image of the industry and by association the products it produces and markets”.
This was especially true when it came to “responsible drinking” messages aimed at the youth and adolescents.
How mind-bogglingly arrogant.
Of course, this will be another blow to the mass media because it carries a large amount of paid “don’t drink and drive” advertising, for example, from the liquor industry over holiday seasons, not to mention being involved in a raft of other campaigns by the industry with regard to curbing alcohol abuse and alcohol education.
A prime example being the Responsible Drinking Media Awards sponsored by Brandhouse.
Quite simply, the problem of substance abuse – alcohol and drugs – will not be solved unless there is a formal and solid partnership between government, the liquor industry and the media.
And its no good government trying to explain their actions by saying that what they are doing this all in accordance with the World Health Organisations’ wishes.
That is nothing more than a red herring because there are many other countries in the world that have chosen not to kowtow to absolutely everything the WHO suggests.
Quite apart from the fact that there are countries like Denmark. Canada and New Zealand that have tried banning alcohol advertising and reverting back to allowing it again after it was found to have no effect whatsoever.
What this all boils down to really, are government expecting the media to play a role in effectively killing itself. Not only is the media expected to shrug off the fact that it will lose R2billion in advertising revenue should alcohol advertising be banned, but now it is expected to not carry any ‘Don’t drink and Drive’ advertising nor partner with the liquor industry in any sort of drug or alcohol education programme.
Unlike the way the media industry just rolled over and played dead when tobacco advertising was banned, it is encouraging to see the media taking a much tougher stance against the banning of liquor advertising.
Not only because of the loss in revenue at a time when the mass media is battling to make ends meet, but mostly because, unlike government, the media realise that ending partnerships with the liquor industry and banning ads is going to have no effect whatsoever on curbing substance abuse.
An editorial in Business Day this week has summed up the situation precisely.
“ALCOHOL abuse is a major problem in SA, particularly among the youth. That is indisputable. There are also not many people who would dispute the assertion that newly qualified drivers are at greater risk of causing accidents. Or that smoking is a burden on the country’s healthcare system, and that the best way to reduce the number of nicotine addicts is to prevent young people from starting to smoke in the first place.
“All of this has long been widely accepted, in recent years even by the industries — alcohol, motor and tobacco — that profit from society’s dependence on their products. The question is not whether the damage associated with their misuse occurs but how best to prevent abuse and, where that fails, to address the consequences. Regulation is undoubtedly a key part of the solution, a conclusion that is borne out by a range of international studies.
“The government’s current initiative to review the existing liquor, smoking and driver’s licence laws cannot, therefore, be faulted in principle. There is a considerable body of evidence showing that active policing and restrictions on the number and location of retail liquor outlets and bars, as well as their hours of operation, can have a meaningful effect on consumption patterns and drunk driving, for instance.
“Similarly, it is now beyond dispute that restrictions on smoking in public places have positive spin-offs for public health, even if they do not seem to have as much effect on the number of smokers. In addition, a number of countries have experimented with the kind of new driver-probation period that is now being proposed for SA, and indications are that easing people into a lifetime behind the wheel gradually, through temporary restrictions on the speed and times at which they are allowed to drive without supervision, can help reduce the accident rate.
“However, this does not mean regulation is a panacea; if only it were that easy. To achieve the desired outcome, the passing of laws prohibiting practices that are considered harmful to society needs to go hand in hand with efficient policing and a concerted effort to change societal attitudes. It is no coincidence that countries that have enjoyed the most success in tackling antisocial smoking, alcohol abuse and irresponsible behaviour on the roads, such as Australia and Germany, are both effective and consistent in their enforcement of the law and enjoy considerable consensus about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.
“They are also among the countries most likely to be considered ‘nanny states’, a label that is applied affectionately when the citizenry sees some benefit in conformity but is the cause of considerable resentment when it appears arbitrary. The danger for a country such as SA, which has a poor track record when it comes to consistency of enforcement and harbours a wide range of conflicting value systems, is that over-regulation in isolation will be ineffective and widely flouted.
“This is especially likely in the case of the proposed ban on alcohol advertising and the bid to raise the legal drinking age to 21. Unlike antismoking measures, which have largely been policed by the public because so many nonsmokers find the habit offensive, the moderate consumption of alcohol by adults is broadly accepted in society. There is likely to be widespread resistance to the notion that 18-year-olds can vote, join the army or decide to have an abortion without parental consent, but cannot buy a beer.
“The failure of the US Prohibition to curb the use of alcohol should be a lesson that, even when considerable resources are put into policing, strict regulation does not work if it is considered unreasonable. This is a risk even in the case of smoking; the Department of Health’s move to tighten the regulatory environment still further will not achieve, ” Business Day concluded.
The tragedy, of course, is that politicians are able to use the issue of banning advertising both to show that they are actually trying to do something and also as a sure-fire vote catcher because the advertising industry itself has allowed the wider public of this country to regard advertising as something of a trivial pursuit.
The man and women in the street simply do not regard advertising as playing any important role in the economy but rather as a superficial business that allows a lot of young people to have fun drawing pretty pictures and shooting entertaining commercials.
The public will not realise the importance of advertising in keeping prices low, for example, until such time as government has banned tobacco and alcohol advertising and then starts, as the Health Minister has indicated, on the process of banning fast foods.
What next? High sugar content drinks, health products, dairy products and so forth.
What government doesn’t realise is that once they kowtow to those small bands of obsessive campaigners who want to ban alcohol and fast food advertising, there will be platoons of other campaigners wanting other product advertising to be banned.
And the more one bans the harder it comes not to continue banning.
I am not suggesting for a minute that nothing should be done about substance abuse. What I am saying is that far too much store is being put in banning advertising and unrealistic regulation as solutions.
And what will happen will be that in ten years time we will find that the problem of alcohol and drug abuse has actually escalated and not reduced.
Government needs to get off its high horse and understand that both the media and the liquor industry are more than ready to co-operate in strategies to combat these plagues.
But they are not going to do it if they are treated as criminals.