Caro Smit with cans of lite and lager. Picture: Shan Pillay

Johannesburg - Caro Smit wants labelling laws changed to stop drivers thinking “lite” beers are less dangerous.

An internationally recognised anti-drink driving campaigner, Smit wants to get the message across: people must not be fooled that they are not “getting drunk” by drinking beers marketed as “lite” – as even just two bottles can tip you over the legal limit.

Leading a campaign to make drivers aware of the impact that even different strength beers have on their blood-alcohol levels, Smit says there are plans to lobby to have alcohol volumes on labels measured in units rather than by percentage points, as units would make it easier for people to see if their blood alcohol levels would be more than the legal limit of 0.05g per 100ml.

Pietermaritzburg-based Smit said “many people are drinking ‘lite’ beers as they are advertised as being ‘lighter in calories and alcohol’. Only if the spelling is ‘light’ is the drink much lower in alcohol.

“In terms of drinking and then driving, “lite drinks” make virtually no difference to blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and can mislead responsible people into driving when they are over the limit.”

Smit founded the South Africans Against Drunk Driving (SADD) NGO following the death of her 23-year-old son, Chas, in September 2005, by a driver who had been drinking.

Her appeal comes after the recent launch of Amstel Lite, which has 25 percent less energy, and 20 percent less alcohol, compared to Amstel Lager.

“If a 68kg man drinks two Amstel Lager 440ml beers, which have an alcohol by volume level of 5 percent, within an hour his blood alcohol level will come to about 0.0088g. If he drinks only two Amstel Lite beers, with an alcohol by volume level of 4 percent, his reading will come to 0.07g. The difference between the normal Lager and the Lite version is negligible and in both cases he will be over the legal limit,” said Smit.

She emphasised the weight of an individual and time span in the above case, as body mass played a role in how the liquid is metabolised, and added that time played a factor as it took one hour for alcohol to be eliminated at a rate of one unit per hour.

“Only time eliminates alcohol from the blood, and this is why people shouldn’t get behind the steering wheel of a car, even after a couple of hours depending on how much they have drunk,” she said.

Senior Superintendent Eugene Msomie, of the eThekwini Metro Police, said that while some drivers pulled over at roadblocks claimed they had only drunk “light beers”, if police found them to be over the limit, the driver would be arrested.

“We welcome any measure to curb the numbers of drunk driving, and we don’t worry whether the driver has had light beer or not. If you are over the limit, you are over the limit and you cannot be on the roads,” said Msomi.

Smit has written to the national Health Department to campaign for a change to labelling laws to reflect the more accurate units of alcohol as the volumes of drinks affect the blood alcohol content. This would help drinkers make more informed decisions.” In Britain, they use the units measurement, and I want that to happen here, too, but we haven’t received even an acknowledgment of our letter to the department which we sent three days ago.”

The department did not respond to queries from The Independent on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Brandhouse, which supplies the Amstel brand in the country, said its products were in line with the national guidelines.

Spokesman Sibani Mngadi said: “The Foodstuff, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act outlines the requirements for a product to be labelled as “light” or “lite” as a comparison to the mother-brand. The Act requires that this comparison should be based on a relative difference of at least 25 percent in the energy value, nutrient or alcohol content of an equivalent mass or volume.

“The light/lite brand should also carry nutritional information relevant to the claim, ie, either less energy or less alcohol content.”

Mngadi said Amstel Lite has 25% less energy per 100ml when compared to Amstel Lager, and a 4.0% alcohol by volume level as compared to 5.0% for Amstel Lager, which means a 20% less alcohol.

Mngadi said Brandhouse also supplied the Windhoek Lager and Windhoek Light products. “At 2.4% alcohol by volume, Windhoek Light has 40% less alcohol by volume than Windhoek Lager at 4.0%. This information is declared on the container with supporting nutritional information as required by the law.”

SAB spokeswoman Robyn Chalmers, said while no formalised definition for a lite/light beer existed, it typically referred to Low In Total Energy (LITE). “Light more often refers to a lower alcohol content, usually less than 3% alcohol by volume.”

Chalmers said both the Liquor Products Act and the Customs and Excise Act require that Alcohol by Volume (ABV) in percentage is expressed on labelling.