Michael Fridjhon: What factors should drive official alcohol policy?

By , 21 July 2021

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Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, Soweto.

The 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli has been credited with first saying that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It ought to be added that there are three kinds of statisticians: competent statisticians, incompetent statisticians, and lying statisticians. The laws of libel preclude me – at least for the moment – from using this taxonomy to categorize the experts whose latest article on the subject of the usefulness of liquor lockdowns in reducing trauma admissions has recently been published. But I will unpack some of the arguments they have used and the conclusions they have arrived at so that you can decide for yourselves.

The subject requires a little background: a coterie of researchers, many of them funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), has been publishing articles over the past two decades about alcohol use and abuse. The data they have assembled have been music to the ears of the prohibitionist lobby within the ANC. This may of course be a complete coincidence, but since the MRC is funded by the government, this stream of research has proved to be a lucrative route to further funding and academic advancement.

For most of this period the liquor industry has been strangely silent. Despite articles whose claims are so extraordinary that even a brain-dead zombie high on nyaope could pick out the flaws, none of the industry organisations challenged what was being published. For example, Richard Matzopoulos argued in 2014, using 2009 figures, that alcohol costs the SA economy over R200bn. To arrive at this number he aggregated a vast number of indirect costs including the expenses incurred nationally on security. Apparently, break-ins and thefts are only perpetrated by people tanked up on liquor. (To accept this logic, you also have to believe that if alcohol were not available there would be no need for security fencing, burglar alarms, and armed response units). Once you start adding tangential costs why draw the line there? Make alcohol foot the bill for unwanted pregnancies and then debit the industry for the crimes perpetrated by kids who were born out of wedlock.

Covid-19 presented a heaven-sent opportunity: the National Coronavirus Command Council, an entity dominated by prohibitionists, used the Disaster Management Act to drive its agenda. The MRC gang, ever keen to please their lords and masters, instantly set about using the liquor lockdowns to support the anti-alcohol proposals they had been trying to incorporate in legislation. Less than two months into the pandemic they published “South Africa’s COVID-19 Alcohol Sales Ban: The Potential for Better Policy-making” in the International Journal of Health Policy Management. 

They argued that “the dramatic decrease in violence and injuries following an alcohol sales ban in South Africa has implications for its alcohol policy post-lockdown as well as the current emergency response in other countries….The decline in alcohol-related trauma, alongside alcohol’s perceived role in crime and undermining public safety, has won political and popular support for maintenance of these restrictions.” They concluded that “we have here an opportunity for stakeholders to work together to develop better alcohol policy and safeguard the post-COVID future of all South Africans.”

The liquor industry culture of ignoring whatever rubbish the anti-alcohol research lobby wrote changed with the Covid-19 lockdowns. Finally, the formal industry bodies grew a pair and began investing in expertise to challenge the very tenuous findings of the MRC gang. A peer-reviewed document appeared late last year showing that there was no hard evidence to support the theory that it had been the ban on liquor sales which had reduced the number of trauma admissions: in over twenty countries which had imposed very strict lockdowns to control the pandemic but which had permitted the continued sale of alcoholic beverages, the reduction in trauma admissions was pretty much the same as in South Africa. It wasn’t the ban on liquor sales that had produced the result, they argued, it was the restrictions on mobility.

The statisticians weren’t fazed. They proceeded to panel-beat their numbers to produce an article which “seemed” to support their prohibitionist agenda. This required several sleights of hand. Firstly they had to keep their raw data away from public scrutiny, Secondly, they made no provision for illicit alcohol supplies. In other words, they assumed that just because liquor couldn’t be obtained legally there was no alcohol about. This took an extraordinary amount of mental gymnastics – since they were obliged to disregard the arguments they use in other studies (and which they feed to the WHO). So this study makes no mention of the estimate that roughly 25% of alcohol consumed in South Africa is not recorded in the official stats. Thirdly they ignored data – like the decline in deaths when alcohol was legally available in late June/July 2020. Finally, they knowingly used the least valid mobility statistics (Google Mobility’s Residential Data) to airbrush away the impact of reduced mobility on trauma statistics.

There’s no prospect that even the widespread publication of evidence of what they have been doing will send them scurrying for cover. Like PPE tenderpreneurs who can’t imagine life without their daily fix of Moët, they’ve become addicted. More importantly, those they serve are not going to give up their agenda just because the facts can no longer be squeezed into their model. If anything, they will exert greater effort than before to force through the legislative changes which have depended on their research outcomes to gain traction.

The wine industry as a whole cannot assume that the formal organisations (which, while they have finally acted, left things dangerously late) will handle this with the urgency and force that is required. If you don’t want advertising banned, the drinking age raised to 21, further restrictions on hours of trade and the whole panoply of regulations that the Stalinists at the South African Alcohol Policy Alliance have in their sights, now is the time to get involved.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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  • Carl22 July 2021

    A great opinion piece Michael and one that needs to reach a wider audience. The current controls do not make sense anymore and smack of a few individuals enforcing their own agenda. Why, because they can. They can ban you from exercising on a beach and force you indoors. They can prevent you from buying cooked chicken. They now have the DM Act to help them issue these ill conceived dictates.

    Does the industry do enough? Warnings on labels, advertising campaigns on social responsibility and paying massive amounts of taxes to the Fiscus. What happens to these taxes? Are they channeled to the right programs, social upliftment, job creation? No it is used to keep a mismanaged airline flying and it is lining the corrupted pockets of the same people who are enforcing these absurd decisions. In all these decisions supported by the MRC et al I have never heard them talking about the lack of healthcare facilities. What has happened to all the field hospitals and the millions spent on it? Why is the MRC not addressing the Charlotte Matcheke hospital closure. Because they cannot talk against the hand that feeds them

    Then thanks for highlighting Richard Matzopoulos’s devious research methods. He has done the same for Gun Free SA. The exact same broad and at times purely dishonest use of data has now been disproved by a Wits research paper. The fault lies squarely with the state not fulfilling their constitutional mandate.

  • Carrie Adams21 July 2021

    Alarming and scary food for thought

  • RH21 July 2021

    I don’t see how the alcohol industry – or commentators like Michael – can argue against tighter regulation or counter a prohibitionist atmosphere without at least making some lip-service to our nation’s obviously problematic relationship with the bottle.

    There is undoubtedly an anti-alcohol lobby with an axe to grind. It may very well be that some of our politicians are eager for any flimsy excuse to nanny our habits and manage our excesses. And yet, can you argue with a straight face that alcohol plays no role in violent contact crimes, road deaths, disease or preventable injury?

    If it’s a balanced discussion that we need, then please at least acknowledge that the industry must also respond to these real social challenges. To summarise the issue as a “communist agenda” is just about as nuanced as someone railing against “white minority capital”.

    • Michael Fridjhon21 July 2021

      No one is disputing that there are some South Africans who have a problematic relationship with alcohol (though I suspect that there are fewer of those than South Africans with a problematic relationship with drugs). The industry spends tens of millions of Rands annually supporting the concept of responsible consumption, so no one is denying the problem. Whether the solution is the application of the very rigorous regulations which already exist or a Reichstag fire to create an excuse for more regulation (that won’t be policed but which will open the door for more bribe-taking) I leave for the readers of WineMag to decide

    • Rioja21 July 2021

      have to agree with you. i am most certainly against any unreasonable bans etc. ( and in my case specifically wine and beer sales) however whilst there may be statistics available that show alcohol has no impact on hospitals admissions any doctor will tell a different story

  • Paul21 July 2021

    The MRC are also funded by The Open Society Foundation, where everyone’s favourite Nazi collaborator is the source of benevolence. Everything George Soros touches rots and dies.

    Matzopolous and his partner in academic fraud, Naeema Abrahams, have falsified much in the field of Intimate Femicide reseach as well

    • Duncan22 July 2021

      The comments section was clearly not the internet’s finest idea.

      Incidentally, the liquor industry has been far from silent. But its messaging is laundered through PR networks. See, for instance, numerous News24 articles written by ‘independent’ industry-funded experts.

  • Schalk Burger21 July 2021

    Very informative and illuminating Michael, thank you. Whilst I agree with the conclusions you’ve drawn, I must admit that I don’t quite understand the motivation – what is driving the “prohibitionist faction” agenda in government? Is it as simple as creating the conditions that make profiteering off illegal trade in alcoholic products possible for insiders, or are there more sinister undercurrents?

    • Michael Fridjhon21 July 2021

      Thanks for your feedback Schalk. Some of what drives the prohibitionist lobby is a deep and justified aversion to alcohol – which was very much part of the modus operandi of the Apartheid government. There’s a genuine concern with regard to all the levels of misconduct associated with alcohol. However prohibition is not the solution and paying people to fake the numbers (and/or not interrogating bad stats) is poor governance. Over and above this I’m afraid we do need to consider the possibility of an ulterior motive: it’s worked for the illicit tobacco trade and there is strong evidence to suggest a significant increase in the supply of bootlegged liquor – so that’s a consequence, intended or otherwise.

  • GillesP21 July 2021

    Excellent article Michael. I fully agree with you. We are run by people with a communist agenda but I am certain that the bulk of them would not be ready to give up on the Moet and their heavy drinking of Black Label.

  • Ashley+Westaway21 July 2021

    Thanks Michael for your consistency on this crucial issue, your bravery for speaking out and your compelling arguments in this particular article. Perhaps Elsenburg should be lobbied to build legal or statistical capacity within the institute, to enable the development of serious, substantiated anti-hegemonic arguments?

    • Michael Fridjhon21 July 2021

      It is certain that the industry has neglected the impact of the selective statistics generated by the prohibitionists. It is now on the back-foot and needs to set the record straight. There’s certainly a need for capacity building, as well as for investment in assembling usable data.

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