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No booze for under 21s: a double-edged sword

South Africa

Durban - Turning 21 is widely considered a milestone of maturity.

Now Parliament is looking to set a new legal drinking age, raising it from 18 to 21.

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But founder of South Africans Against Drunk Driving, Caro Smit, has given a big thumbs up to the proposed changes.

The revised National Liquor Policy was handed to cabinet as Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies outlined proposals to amend the Liquor Act this week.

And according to Ballito’s Matric Rage organiser, Greg Walsh, chief executive of G&G Productions, the move will 'only breed a whole new underworld of bootleggers'.

Reacting strongly on Friday night to the proposed amendments, Walsh said, “We are quite opposed to it, as anyone in the trade will be. The festival is a business and this will of course affect it, but my bigger issue is that I don’t buy for a second that increasing the drinking age will stop the 18 to 21 age group from drinking - it only encourages uncontrolled and criminal drinking behaviour as opposed to a monitored environment where alcohol is legally available to over 18s.

“You are going to end up with hundreds of consumers and venues breaking the law and it will breed a whole new world of bootleggers,” said Walsh.

He added that if the legal drinking age is upped to 21, that the Rage Festival South Africa will continue, with the necessary changes.

Walsh also warned that the change could exacerbate drug abuse in the affected age group, as it is harder to spot.

“I’m not convinced it’s going to work, industry can try and be responsible, but the government needs to vehemently police and prosecute alcohol-related crimes,” said Walsh.

The Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa east coast operations director, Charles Preece, said while “the intention is fantastic”, he questioned the authorities’ ability to police such a crime.

“How are they going to make it effective and police it properly? We are having more and more laws, such as the recent by-laws where drinking in public is illegal, but this is not being enforced.”

But founder of South Africans Against Drunk Driving, Caro Smit, has given a big thumbs up to the proposed changes.

“We think it’s a very good idea. It could save thousands of lives a year. There is also a problem with binge drinking in that age group which is very harmful,” said Smit, adding that five units in two hours is considered binge drinking.

She added that there is also a higher chance of being killed in a car crash in the first year of getting a driving licence, with causes being drinking, speeding and/or texting while driving and overloading the vehicle with friends.

Research by the World Health Organisation has shown that South Africa has the highest alcohol consumption on the African continent. It estimates that the cost of harmful use of alcohol in the country exceeds 10 percent of the gross domestic product.

The South African Medical Research Council says the country has lost billions as a result of alcohol abuse.

Home brew

Professor Charles Parry of the council’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit, says that 56 percent of the alcohol consumed in the country is malt beer with 14 percent being wine. He adds that a third of alcohol consumed is unrecorded and comes from home brewed sorghum beer.

“Raising the drinking age to 21 and properly enforcing it will take a huge amount of effort that we would need to be sure we have the capability and commitment to take this on,” he says.

Parry adds that it is easy to pass the legislation, but actual positive impact will include the development and implementation of a national system of identification by card at a point of sale.

Netcare 911 spokesperson, Chris Botha, said while they saw a surge in alcohol-related accidents during the matric dance season, many such accidents involved drivers over the age of 21.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it needs to be in conjunction with enforcing licences, keeping a bigger distance between vehicles, reducing speed and not using cellphones,” said Botha.

Department of Trade and Industry spokesperson, Sidwell Medupe, says the issue of alcohol abuse is a societal issue.

“We need to work together to address this problem. We are among the top drinkers in the world. We need to start asking ourselves as to how can we help our people and protect our children?” he says.

Some liquor stores, taverns and some of those in the hospitality industry remain opposed to raising the legal drinking age, claiming adverse effects on their business, but Medupe points out that the proposals are not about commercial interests.

“Must we put profit before our lives or the lives of our children? We are not anti-entrepreneurship, but we are more concerned about the real issue at hand and the fact that many of our people die daily from alcohol-related incidents such as car crashes and domestic abuse.”

Do you think the age limit for drinking should be raised?

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