The South African government is considering banning the advertising of alcohol in an attempt to cut the abuse of alcohol.
I am not in favour of such a move for a few reasons.
The one is that I do not believe that there will be any significant reduction in alcohol abuse. By the time someone is abusing alcohol, then advertising it or not makes no difference. For the sake of simplicity, I will divide alcohol abuse into two categories: the continuous and the one-off. By ‘continuous’ I mean a case where the person drinks to excess regularly, which may be twice a week. Such a person knows where to buy the alcohol and will get it, advertising or no advertising.
The one-off situation is what happens at a party, for example, and what comes to mind is some of the student bashes that I attended as a student. Believe me, a large group of students is going to drink alcohol with absolutely no inducement from advertising. In a situation like that, a person’s upbringing and interaction with friends are what will tell during the course of the evening. Of course, such parties can get somewhat out of hand – I read for four degrees at university; I have seen parties. I cannot imagine that the banning of alcohol advertising will have any impact on such parties.
So, how is the proposed banning going to cut alcohol use or, rather, abuse? It is not like smoking, where one hopes that young people will never start at all. We are not trying to stop people ever drinking a glass of wine or having a cold beer at the end of a hot day.
In fact, there is no advertising that tells people to drink – all alcohol advertising is about market share. No advertisement says: “Drink beer.” All the advertisers say: “Our beer is better.”
Further, a large amount of alcohol advertising is about the classy elements of alcohol consumption – like telling one about the crispness of wine or the aroma of brandy. The alcohol companies have been socially aware of their product, so even the beer advertisements show responsible use, to my mind. No ads promote student parties; they all tend to show quality people having a single drink.
So, I am really sceptical that cutting advertising will cut alcohol abuse. In fact, I believe that it could make it worse because then people get the feeling that drinking is some covert activity and with that comes the aura of ‘getting away with it’.
During the prohibition years in the US, when alcohol was totally banned, the sale of alcohol thrived – it just did so in an invisible fashion.
I now come to another point. When you throw a few pebbles in the pond, you cannot tell where all the ripples are going to end up. There is interaction and interference and a very complex pattern results. The economy is the same. If the alcohol advertising is banned, it is like throwing a fistfull of pebbles in the pond. Not only will advertising businesses be affected, but a possible result could be that wine sales drop by 10%. This will lead to job cuts in the wine lands, and that could lead to more crime as desperate people try to survive.
Banning alcohol advertising, as well as sports sponsorships and so on, is a case of major waves in the economy. This is very dangerous.
Finally, there is the extremely important point of the degree to which a government is permitted to alter the life patterns of its citizens. No government has the right to tell its citizens how to live their lives other than to say: “Stay within the bounds of law”, and laws should be kept to a minimum. Government is not the boss of the people; the people are the boss of government.
A government cannot tell you to put on a jacket when it gets cold and cannot tell you not to go skydiving because it is dangerous. Further, it cannot tell you not to eat raw fish because it could make you sick. By the same token, a government cannot tell you not to drink alcohol; it cannot even tell you how much alcohol you may drink. A government cannot tell alcohol producers not to sell their product.
If government is allowed to ban alcohol advertising, what is to stop them from banning the advertising of hamburgers on the grounds that too many hamburgers could lead to you suffering a heart attack? In fact, why not go further and pass a law that nobody is allowed to eat any meal in which the meat percentage is higher than 20%, and also that salads must constitute at least 33% of any meal? After all, such a law should lead to a healthier population . . . right. I imagine that such a law would actually lead to a healthier population, but gov- ernment does not have the right to tell me how much meat and salads I must eat. It does not have the right to tell me what I can drink either, and it does not have the right to tell any alcohol company not to offer me an option of buying its products.