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In dealing with liquor, it is necessary to learn from the mistakes made in the war on smoking, says Fred Jacobs.
Cape Town - The idea of banning the advertising of all wine, beer and spirit drinks as a means of dealing with the social ills that undoubtedly flow from alcohol abuse is captivatingly simple, but it has clearly not been thought through.
The first mistake is to compare drinking with cigarette smoking.
Smoking aggravates many respiratory ailments and there is no doubt that even moderate cigarette smoking can cause cancer. Moderate alcohol consumption, on the other hand, does little harm and may even be beneficial. But, used in excess, it becomes a dangerous drug.
To some extent the use of alcohol is moderated by social conventions developed over the centuries, but there is no such tradition to curb smokers.
Drinking alcoholic beverages goes back to the earliest days of civilisation and is now part of our culture. The Chinese were making a fermented beverage from rice and fruit about 9 000 years ago and barley beer dates back to ancient Babylon (now Iran) 5 000-6 000 years ago.
The Egyptians drank beer, the Greeks (including their gods) and the Romans drank wine (Emperor Augustus used to mix water with his wine), the Druids of Britain and France fermented honey to make mead before Stonehenge was built, and in Africa sorghum beer use goes back as far as recorded history.
Cigarette smoking, on the other hand, has been around for not much more than a century and is certainly not ingrained in social life. Smoking has a longer history in the New World, but cultivation and smoking methods were inefficient and so the danger was limited.
The real tobacco problem started with the cigarette, which offered easy smoking and instant gratification. And once Western technology and marketing know-how came into the picture, the product spread rapidly, profitably and with lethal consequences.
In the 1950s and 1960s, cigarette smoking reached its zenith. It was the glamorous, fashionable thing to do. The cinema advertising of the day was powerful enough to convince any young person that life was not worth living without cigarettes.
Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Dean were pictured with cigarettes between their lips. Ronald Reagan advertised Chesterfields and sex sirens of the day smoked theirs through long, elegant cigarette holders. In movies, every conversation seemed to start with an exchange of cigarettes or a “light”. The air would have been blue with smoke at any Chamber of Commerce or board meeting during that time.
And then people noticed that heavy smokers in their forties and fifties would suddenly drop down dead from heart attacks, and the link between smoking and cancer was clearly established.
The methods used to combat cigarette smoking were education, information, taxation and advertising bans. The habit has been successfully deglamourised and those who continue smoking generally step outside to do so. Unfortunately, it has been more difficult to reach the less educated among us, hence the call for graphic health warnings and plain packaging.
In dealing with liquor, it is necessary to learn from the mistakes made in the war on smoking. One mistake was the belief that making cigarettes more expensive by taxing them heavily would reduce consumption. Well, it may have done, but it also meant that money which could have been spent on bread and milk was consumed by the tobacco habit. I’m unaware of any research on the matter, but it could be that poorer addicts are now spending a higher percentage of their pay on cigarettes than they were a few decades ago.
What is not in dispute is that cigarette smuggling has now become a big and profitable industry. The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa estimates that the trade in illegal cigarettes cost the government R5 billion in excise and VAT last year and R12bn over the past three years.
Independent research shows that the illegal trade in cigarettes now accounts for 30 percent of the total cigarette market in South Africa, with approximately 55 percent of illegal tobacco products reaching South Africa from Zimbabwe. Local manufacture accounts for about 30 percent.
What this tells us is that a third of the cigarettes consumed are slipping through the tax net and evading all the health warnings to end up in the hands of the people who most need to see those graphic pictures.
If the advertising of alcoholic drinks is banned, it will save the industry billions in marketing and advertising costs every year, so it will be able to reduce the price of its branded products, and that will lead to an increase in sales. Drink will be more affordable, so a ban on advertising could actually promote the consumption and increase the abuse of alcohol.
The second thing a ban would do is reduce the emphasis on quality, and the low-cost no-name brands would move into the market. Corners would be cut to keep costs down and new health hazards could be introduced. To counter the threat of cheaper alcohol, the government would, no doubt, increase taxes.
But that would be another mistake, for higher taxes would make duty-free products more attractive and profitable, creating lucrative new opportunities for smugglers. The underground organisations built to smuggle cigarettes into the country are ready and waiting to add a new product to their range of wares.
Higher taxes will also encourage home-brewing and, inevitably, hobbies will grow into cottage industries. And it won’t stop there. What the people who are so keen to ban alcohol advertising don’t seem to understand is that making booze is easy. It can be done with sugar, fruit, grains and potatoes in a suburban kitchen. The results will not always be good but they will be intoxicating. And they could be dangerous. As the cottage industries grow, they will compete with each other and some of them could get rough. Rougher than taxi warlords.
The main reason why the US’s prohibition experiment failed was that most people never took it seriously. The locations of the speakeasies were open secrets and drinking gin from teacups was a novel experience. The risk of a police raid just added to the excitement. In fact, there were few raids because the police were rightly occupied with more serious matters.
To others prohibition was a joke. One California vineyard, for instance, sold bottles of grape juice with a warning that if not properly handled the contents could turn into wine. Below the warning was a list of things not to do to avoid this danger, but if buyers carefully did all the “do nots”, the grape juice would miraculously turn into rather drinkable wine. At the end of prohibition, California was making and selling more wine than it did before the great experiment began.
Would really strict enforcement make a difference? Probably not. In Iran, the penalty for drinking is a public whipping with 80 lashes for the first offence. According to reports, an estimated 60-80 million litres of spirits are smuggled into the country every year and when police administered random tests on drivers in Tehran for one month last year, they found that 26 percent were drunk.
Alcohol is a mixed blessing. It is a great social lubricant and it is part of the way we celebrate our triumphs, but we should never forget the dangers. Education and health warnings are necessary and we should do everything in our power to enforce existing regulations, with measures like roadblocks to keep liquored-up drivers off the roads, and promote the use of “designated drivers” to get celebrants home safely.
There is a great danger that the excessive zeal of people who mean well will drive the industry underground. We need to keep it in the light where we can see what is happening. Let us see the liquor brands fight for market share with clever advertising campaigns which actually subsidise the media, one of the cornerstones of our democracy.
* Fred Jacobs is President of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.