It is heartening to hear that cabinet has been circumspect in its debate on the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill.
According to a report in Business Day yesterday, “the cabinet is divided over a bill that would impose a total ban on the advertising of alcohol products, with departments such as health and social development wanting to curb the misuse of alcohol, and economic departments concerned about the depressing effect on the economy of such a ban.
“The divisions,” added Business Day, “were highlighted by confusion in the cabinet over whether or not a decision has been made that a regulatory impact assessment should be conducted on the bill.”
Clearly, cabinet ministers have been divided over this Bill for the past three years that it has been debated within an inter-ministerial committee, and the reasons are obvious.
With South Africa in the unemployment doldrums right now, any legislation that could shed thousands more jobs, as this Bill will do, it has to be very carefully considered. The impact on banning alcohol advertising will be very different to the ban on tobacco ads all those years ago. The amount of advertising money involved in alcohol advertising is 10 times that of tobacco and there is no convenient new source of advertising available now such as there was at the time of the tobacco ban when the cellular telephone industry started spending money like water. In addition, it still remains questionable as to the role tobacco advertising bans played relative to the other measures that saw smoking banned in restaurants, offices, public buildings, aircraft and so on.
I would hope that the media, particularly, would not be tempted to gloat over this delay in publishing this bill, because the time for playing one-upmanship games with this issue is certainly not now.
According to insiders, the approval of the Bill by cabinet a couple of weeks ago had some fairly stiff terms and conditions applied. The most important of which is an economic impact assessment that was required to be carried out by the authors of the Bill either before it is made public or after public participation.
All stakeholders need to co-operate with government on this assessment to ensure that it is objective and non-partisan. This is absolutely critical because just about all the research quoted by both the anti- and pro-advertising ban lobbies carries very little credibility when one digs down to see who paid for it all.
It is extremely encouraging to see that Cabinet has resisted the temptation just to legislate against alcohol advertising willy-nilly because to do so would have achieved nothing but to make government look at that it is indulging in popular tokenism about the chronic level of alcohol abuse in this country.
There is absolutely no doubt that discussions over the Bill, once it is published, should be about compromise. There is a lot more the liquor industry can do and from what I hear, they are prepared to up their game quite considerably.
There is also a lot more that the media can do and it is encouraging to see that both the print and broadcast media have been sitting down for the past year or so, as has the advertising industry, to look at solutions and actions, not just the drawing of battle lines.
When the minister of health’s proposed Bill was ‘leaked’ early this year it was seen to be so draconian that the liquor industry and media started drawing precisely those battle lines. Particularly as that Bill would not have had a hope in Hades of passing muster in the Constitutional Court.
But, since then, there has been intelligent debate within cabinet. Hopefully, the public participation that will take place once this Bill is gazetted will be equally as intelligent and rational.
Quite simply, South Africa cannot afford to allow die-hard activists on both sides of this issue to control this debate.
It is all far too important and the last thing the country needs is to find out 10 years down the line that banning advertising had absolutely no effect on curbing alcohol abuse but just perhaps led to some increased abuse by the thousands who lost their jobs and had nowhere to turn in this depressed economy other than a bottle of home-brew.
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
IMAGE: Continental Outdoor Media