Calls for legal drinking age in SA to be increased from 18 to 21 getting louder

An employee restocks shelves with Castle brand beer in Durban. Picture: Kevin Sutherland Bloomberg

An employee restocks shelves with Castle brand beer in Durban. Picture: Kevin Sutherland Bloomberg

Published Nov 2, 2023


An employee restocks shelves with Castle brand beer in Durban. Picture: Kevin Sutherland Bloomberg

South African lobby groups are putting pressure on the government to urgently pass the Liquor Amendment Bill, which will see the legal drinking age increased to 21.

Recently, the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (Saapa) reiterated its stance on increasing the legal drinking age at the 7th Biennial Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Cape Town.

The lobby group believes that delaying when youngsters begin drinking will have a positive effect later in their lives.

“We are calling for a number of alcohol harm reduction interventions which include raising the legal drinking age to 21,” said Saapa spokesperson Terri-Liza Fortein.

The alliance wants the government to pass the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2017.

“This would mean a comprehensive approach will be in place to reduce alcohol harm. This would include no advertising except at point of sale. Reduced trading hours and fewer outlets. But we also need better enforcement of existing laws.”

Used beer bottles move along a conveyor belt before recycling at SABMiller Plc’s Newlands brewery in Cape Town on August 10, 2016. Picture: Waldo Swiegers Bloomberg

Fortein said that increasing the legal drinking age was imperative.

“The drinking age is currently 18 but we see teen and underage drinking is prevalent. We do not believe that the majority of 18-year-olds can make sound decisions, because they are still growing and are naive.”

But lobby groups such as Saapa are in for a fight as alcohol producers have vehemently opposed the amendments.

“We are a public health NGO and we believe in putting people before profits. We will always lobby for laws that make people’s lives better while the industry only cares about making money. We are proud to go up against their practices that cause harm and challenges in our communities. But we are very under-resourced, they have lots of resources so any of your readers wanting to help us make South Africa alcohol safer can donate on They just need to search under our name.”

Fortein said the passing of the Liquor Amendment Bill of 2017 would help to put in place a number of measures to tackle alcohol addiction in the country.

“Not many South Africans drink, but those who do drink, binge drink or drink excessively. They overburden the health-care system and that costs the fiscus. There are also a number of social problems that emanate from this, including gender-based violence and intimate partner violence.

Used beer bottles move along a conveyor belt before recycling at SABMiller Plc’s Newlands brewery in Cape Town on August 10, 2016. Picture: Waldo Swiegers Bloomberg

“We need better laws and we need those laws to be upheld, but we also need to look at the social issues in our community that drive addiction.”

Fortein said they were optimistic that the bill would be passed which would allow for the legal drinking age to be increased.

“We engage with government regularly. We just had a very good engagement with the minister of social development at the Global Alcohol Policy Conference (GAPC). We have a long shopping list of things we want and we write to government about. But top of our list is to pass the Liquor Amendment Bill and use existing legislation to reduce harms like the Limpopo government did to reduce trading hours to midnight.”

Fortein said it was of utmost importance that South Africa takes the fight to alcohol addiction immediately.

“All of these things to reduce harm are urgent because the circumstances that led to 21 children dying at the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy remain, so we can see that reoccurring at any time. Matrics are starting exams and what will happen when it's pens down? Urgent action is needed.”

An employee restocks shelves at a bottle store in Durban. Picture: Kevin Sutherland Bloomberg

Fortein added that young people in particular were at risk.

“As the brain keeps developing into the mid-twenties, drinking alcohol as a teenager can increase the risk of harm to the developing brain. It can also lead to trouble with alcohol later in life. Binge drinking is also defined as drinking over the recommended level of standard drinks. This usually means no more than four standard drinks in one session. Drinks come in different sizes and strengths too. There are so many effects of binge drinking, some of which include hangovers, headaches, nausea and vomiting, and shakiness.

“It’s important to remember that binge drinking can mean that the young person might make decisions they might not make usually. Having a safety plan in place can help reduce the risk of engaging in risky behaviours like swimming or drunk driving. In general, it’s a carcinogen that can cause seven types of cancer.”

Meanwhile, South Africans Against Drink Driving (SADD) are also pushing for the increase in the legal drinking age.

“SADD have in fact been asking for this for more than 15 years, as it is one of the World Health Organization’s best buys to bring down alcohol abuse, including drink driving deaths, especially in the youth,” said Caro Smit, founder and director of SADD.

An employee wheels a trolley of beer at a Durban bottle store. Picture: Kevin Sutherland Bloomberg

She said increasing the legal drinking age would come with a number of benefits.

“The developing brain is very vulnerable to toxins, which can do permanent damage. Alcohol, especially binge drinking, which many youngsters do, is very harmful to the teenagers brains.

The media launch for the 2013 Cape Town Festival of Beer. Picture: David Ritchie

“It is much better if the youngsters are not allowed to drink alcohol for the first few years after getting their licence. In the first year after getting a licence, the chance of dying in a crash is significantly increased.

“In the US the drinking age was changed to 21 by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) for this reason. The public were not pleased. It was then agreed upon to bring back the legal drinking age to 18, and monitor it for a year and see what happens. The deaths rates of the 18- to 21-year-olds was so high, the drinking age was then permanently changed to 21.”

Smit said it was clear that South Africa needed more stringent alcohol measures as alcohol addiction is one of the country’s biggest problems.

“We are classed as one of the heaviest drinking nations in the world. Our gender-based violence is very high. Assaults from stabbing are very high, There is a huge toll on our health-care workers, hospitals and the fiscus. SA has one of the highest alcohol per capita drinking rates in the world. Given the relatively larger child populations in our country, removing the child population from the ratio measures would show much higher rates for our country. 59.4% of our population are abstainers, so that means those who do drink, drink excessively and in a manner that is harmful.”

South African women have chalked up an unsavoury honour: they like more than just a tipple. In fact, they drink more alcohol than women anywhere else in Africa.

Smit said they are various ways to solve issues such as alcohol addiction.

“We need to increase the number of alcohol treatment centres dramatically. We need many more alcohol addiction counsellors trained.

“We need to train doctors and nurses to identify alcohol problems early on, and refer people for treatment. We need to have very strict and harsh penalties for drink driving.

“We need people to know that drink driving is not a joke. It is very serious and causes enormous harm to the family and the fiscus.”

Alcohol traders react to the government’s sudden turn on the alcohol ban just as their businesses were picking up in July 2020. Picture: Oupa Mokoena Independent Newspapers

“To reduce alcohol harm we also need to follow the World Health Organization's best buys, which include stopping all alcohol advertising, including on social media, shortening the drinking hours (stop serving alcohol at 12), increasing the price of alcohol, and applying MUP (minimum units pricing). This means that the stronger the alcohol, the more units in the drink, the more expensive the drink must be (so spirits must become much more expensive). Finally, we need to raise the drinking age to 21.”

The Star

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