How the restriction on alcohol advertising in South Africa impacts rights

The lockdown restrictions introduced in South Africa to curb the initial spread of COVID-19 in March 2020 were the tightest in the world. They included alcohol lockdown rules which meant there was a ban on alcohol sales and a restriction on alcohol advertising. This, the government said, was to reduce the pressure on hospitals caused by drinking-related trauma, and to discourage social gatherings. This restriction exposed the huge public health and social impact of alcohol in South Africa. Dramatic decreases in violence, injuries and trauma-related hospital admissions were reported following the ban on alcohol sales. The country has some of the heaviest drinkers in the world. Excessive drinking is a major contributor to the health burden. Children are especially vulnerable. In South Africa 12% of adolescents consumed their first alcoholic beverage before the age of 13 years. In 2016, of the young people between 15 and 19 years old who consumed alcohol, 65% reported binge drinking. Alcohol abuse is also linked to many societal problems. These include domestic violencefoetal alcohol syndromechild abuseinjuries, and risky sexual behaviours. In 2012, the South African government drafted the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill. The Bill sought to restrict advertising, marketing, sponsorship, or promotion of alcoholic beverages except at the point of sale. It was drafted specifically to protect children from alcohol advertising. This intervention is consistent with World Health Organisation recommendations to control alcohol-related harm. The Bill underwent three regulatory and socio-economic impact assessments. It was meant to be published for public comment in 2013 but was never made public. Our previous research found that the alcohol and allied industries lobbied heavily against the draft Bill. One argument made by opponents to the draft Bill was that it would unjustifiably violate human rights. These include freedom of expression, and consumers’ rights to information. In a recent paper we analysed these claims using the Siracusa Principles, which guide the circumstances under which it is justifiable to restrict some rights. Human rights are a well-recognised framework based on ethics and embedded in international law. They can be used to find a balance between competing societal goals.

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