Johannesburg - Eighteen-year-olds can drive, pay taxes and join the army – but will be banned from drinking alcohol if Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has his way.
Raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 is just one of a raft of measures being considered by Motsoaledi and 10 government ministries to reduce the harm caused by alcohol consumption.
Motsoaledi also wants to see a complete ban on drinking before driving, a ban on alcohol advertising, and a review of alcohol pricing.
Motsoaledi was addressing a World Health Organisation meeting in Boksburg.
He said the government was considering raising the legal age to consume alcohol from 18 to 21; that motorists could not consume any alcohol before driving; that they were considering a ban on alcohol advertising; and were reviewing alcohol pricing.
Motsoaledi said there might be a fight over the changes, but the government was prepared for it.
In his speech, Motsoaledi commended the Gauteng provincial government for intended changes to alcohol laws including a ban on Sunday sales.
The Western Cape was also keeping Sundays alcohol-free.
However, the chief executive of the KwaZulu-Natal Liquor Authority, Stella Khumalo, said the province was still on track to allow liquor stores to open on Sunday.
Exactly when this would happen was unclear, she said, but would be in the second half of the year.
The proposal on increasing the drinking age was welcome, she said, as it would ensure young people were kept out of environments that sold alcohol.
The Western Cape Liquor Authority was wary with its response to the speech.
“This proposal has been heard before. They said the same thing a few years ago so we can’t really comment until there is something on paper,” said spokesman Philip Prinsloo.
Automobile Association spokesman Gary Ronald said there had been talk about these laws for some time, and while the association agreed with many of the proposed changes, there were some concerns about the practical effect the laws might have.
He said the most controversial was the proposed ban on alcohol advertising. In conferences where this had been discussed, he said, the advertising industry had protested, saying the ban would have the effect of causing thousands of jobs being lost but not have much effect on the behaviour of drinkers.
“Upping the legal age limit, though, is not a bad thing from a road safety point of view,” said Ronald. “One drink is too much for someone who is an inexperienced driver.”
Ronald added that in theory he was in favour of lowering the alcohol limit to zero.
“Even if you have taken medication (like cough syrup which contains alcohol), by the time you are taken to draw blood, that small amount would have disappeared from your system. But is this practical?”
But he said the current alcohol limit of 0.05ml/100g was a reasonable limit and was a benchmark worldwide.
“Rather, get the law component running properly and lab testing improved. There is also a concern that with the amount of corrupt policing, a zero alcohol limit would just increase corruption because you can be arrested if an officer thinks he smells alcohol on you,” said Ronald.
Howard Dembovsky, chairman of the Justice Project SA, said the good thing about the proposed changes in the law was it would get the message across that drinking and driving was a big no-no.
“Will it improve prosecution of drunk-driving cases? I doubt it, but let’s get the message out there,” said Dembovsky.
He said 65 percent of road fatalities in South Africa were related to alcohol abuse, but a large proportion of this was due to drunk pedestrians.
As far as the ban on advertising is concerned, Dembovsky sees no real benefit in doing this.
“Rather, charge a 10 percent levy on alcohol advertising that could go into a road safety campaign. Nobody advertises drugs, but people still use them. It will be the same for alcohol,” he said.
Dembovsky also said banning alcohol on Sundays would just lead to the opening of more illegal shebeens.
Sally Thorp, a director at Life Talk, an organisation raising awareness on issues affecting teenagers and parents, said alcohol abuse was out of control.
“These laws won’t do much if we don’t look at the root cause behind alcohol abuse. As a society, we need to start taking responsibility for our own actions, but too many laws could push drinking underground.”
She said the legal age limit for drinking was 18, but children as young as 10 were drinking and bringing alcohol to school.
“What we need is education and a way to empower parents,” Thorp said.