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The problem with liquor is not regulation but weak policing

| Legislation

The Liquor Amendment Bill, which has been several years in the drafting, is destined to go before the new Cabinet in the next few weeks. With the possible exception of the clauses relating to siting licences close to schools and places of worship, it seems the extensive public consultation process has brought no changes.

Given that there are strong views on the subject — especially among the prohibitionists, who are an important ANC constituency — no one seriously expected that rational argument would prevail in the presence of political necessity.

There are several proposals in the draft bill that reflect the frustration of the dirigistes in the government when they cannot mould reality to meet their expectations. Confronted by the unacceptable consequences of alcohol consumption, they believe that further regulation will address the problems.

They want to raise the drinking age to 21 — from 18, a threshold more honoured in the breach than the observance. They think an advertising ban will change the perceived status of alcohol as a desirable social lubricant and thus minimise its uptake among the youth. They believe that restricting the number of purchase locations and imposing rigorous conditions on licensed vendors will lead to reduced consumption.

They hope that by making producers vicariously liable for damage arising from alcohol abuse, they will solve this problem (a little like imprisoning the knife manufacturer when there’s a victim of stabbing).

Some of these ideas enjoy wide international currency: the general principle of restricting availability drove the US in 1920 to pass the Volstead Act (which banned the sale of alcohol). The consequences of Prohibition are well known. During this 13-year period there were more illegal speakeasies than there had been licensed establishments before 1920.

It is estimated that 95% of all the smuggled liquor actually reached consumers — a measure of the failure to enforce unpopular legislation — yet 500,000 law-abiding Americans landed up in jail.

Where properly distilled products were unobtainable, consumers bought toxic substances. Between 50,000 and 80,000 people died from contaminated drinks.

But perhaps the most serious long-term negative consequence was that the rule of law in the US was irreparably damaged. Social drinkers became criminals and breaking the law was no longer regarded as a crime. The public lost all respect for the police — a consequence we can hardly afford given the already low estimation in which they are held in SA.

Bootleggers and consumers became allies in the war against Prohibition, and this gave the Mafia a veneer of respectability. After the Volstead Act was repealed, organised crime moved into protection rackets, prostitution, gambling and drugs.

We know that teenagers are already binge-drinking from about the age of 16. The proposed increase of the legal age to 21 will simply mean they will drink illegally for longer, and this will make it more difficult to educate them about responsible alcohol consumption. We also know that since middle-class under-age kids have been so successful at securing illicit supplies, the new regulations will bring little benefit.

Rural kids will continue to access the illegally produced "ales" which already account for tens of millions of litres, according to the South African Revenue Service. If liquor is difficult to obtain, under-age consumers will simply turn to drugs, which are readily available despite ample legislation.

The proposed ban (partial or total) of alcohol advertising is equally misdirected. For all the "evidence" assembled by the prohibitionists suggesting it will make a difference, there’s an equal body of research that says nothing will change.

Those who cite the ban on advertising of tobacco products in support of this are clutching at straws. Higher excise taxes might have played a role, but now that we know (courtesy of Jacques Pauw’s book) how big the illicit market is, we realise that consumption has not decreased and that dirigiste policies simply create opportunities for entrepreneurial criminals.

There aren’t any above-the-line campaigns for dope, coke, heroin, nyaope, tik, ecstasy but they’re all out there and selling well. The problem is not regulation but policing; stricter laws simply mean more law-breakers.

If we don’t fix the police, we won’t fix the problem. It’s interesting that this obvious solution has long fallen off the government’s agenda.

As happened in the US in the lead-up to the Volstead Act, even people who do not care much either way fail to see the harm in what appear to be perfectly reasonable proposals. They imagine that the liquor industry would naturally argue for less regulation and that more regulation must necessarily be better. As a result, there is very limited public interest in opposing the legislation.

Accordingly we can expect Edmund Burke’s famous injunction to come to pass: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

• Fridjhon is a wine writer and author, and international wine judge.

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