By Tafi Mhaka
Zack never stood a chance of escaping the misfortune he faced one ill-fated Wednesday night close to 18 years ago. Daniel, a friend of his, had invited him out for drinks at a popular nightspot. Mike, a mutual friend of theirs, tagged along as well. Daniel, who worked as a nurse in London, had come home on holiday for a few weeks, after many years abroad. He had bought home a small but pretty decent car for his mother.
The twenty-something partygoers had one helluva great time that night: the drinks flowed amid boisterous conversation. Life could not get better, it seemed. And, it never did: The three young men were involved in an accident later that night after Daniel, who was inebriated, failed to negotiate a turn and rammed into a sturdy wall at high speed. Mike and Daniel suffered minor bruises. Zack, who had taken a seat behind Daniel and had not bothered to buckle up, as was common in those days, was ejected from the car when the car made impact with the wall. He suffered serious and irreversible spinal injuries. With that he lost the ability to walk or make use of his upper body for life.
Sobriety is a big part of responsible drinking. You can choose to drink a glass or two of beer now and again, or take the odd glass of wine occasionally, or choose to abstain from alcohol altogether. Whichever of the above works for you: great. But the problem is the middle ground that most drinkers tend to occupy. That is, the people who opt to drink every day, every night or every weekend, or those partygoers, who prefer to take breaks from Monday to Friday, only to go binge drinking on weekends. They are the people in denial: the alcoholics.
This drinking culture is unproductive, as most of us very well know. The health and financial implications of high alcohol consumption are well documented and gravely serious. Cameron Conlon – a young student from St Stithians Boys’ College in Sandton – died last week after a night of drinking, media reports allege. David Knowles, the headmaster of the school, paid tribute to the young man: “He was fun-loving and a good friend to many. We will miss his cheerful smile and his positive attitude.”
Cameron passed away just two days after he had won the MacNicol Prize for creativity on Wednesday evening at a school prize-giving ceremony. The matric student had joined his friends on a night out to celebrate their last day of school when he died. The final year of high school should be the springboard for a great life ahead. This is a tragedy most matric students should not face. This is a catastrophe most parents should not have to endure. This is a sad event most South Africans can empathise with. And, as I much as I hate to say it, this is something more students will experience in the future.
I used to drink beer. I used to drink beer a lot. My tolerance to alcohol was legendary. I drank at the slightest excuse. I made room to drink ahead of more important things in life. I drank on Mondays. I drank on Wednesdays. I drank until late on Sundays most regularly. I relished that drinking life. I learnt to normalise the abnormal. It was not hard to do. The friends I fraternised with made it easy for me. So did the strangers I met at different drinking spots in Sandton, Soweto, Rosebank, Randburg, Ivory Park, Pretoria, Midrand; everywhere I went, beer was the life of the party. The people who did not drink seemed a strange lifeless lot.
I loved to make new friends. I loved the life. I had been drawn to the life at high school. The cool dudes in the beer advertisements appeared to have it all in life. They looked full of life and had glamorous-looking women around them all the time. They had good-looking skin that brimmed with life. They dressed well. They told great jokes. They had wonderful friends. They looked healthy. They had fun. So it was not long before I made up my mind: theirs was the life I had to live. My first beer was not quite what I had imagined it would be: It was bitter, awfully bitter. ‘Why did Uncle Moses find it so tasty?’ – I wondered. After my third beer – then my fourth and fifth beer, I found the taste fairly palatable. Not long after that, I became that cool guy in the advert. And the cold beer on the table validated me: It made me the man.
I cannot say I would not have drunk beer If I had not watched the beer advertisements. I can say I would not have come to associate beer with all-things glamorous, all-things good about life; things which I concluded as a youthful and highly-impressionable high school student. As children age, the politics of cultural identity step to the fore, and advertising is often the platform many brands use to create and cement lifelong brand associations and relationships. So should the government introduce a total ban on alcohol advertising and raise the legal age of drinking to 21? Yes, it should. Not least because comprehensive advertising bans do work and can save lives as well.
Take the ban on tobacco advertising for example. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says: “Bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship are one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco consumption, with countries that have already introduced bans showing an average of 7% reduction in tobacco consumption.”
“Research shows about one third of youth experimentation with tobacco occurs as a result of exposure to tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Worldwide, 78% of young people aged 13-15 years report regular exposure to some form of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”
A similar logic can be applied to alcohol consumption. I have observed that most youths begin to experiment with alcohol at high school. But do not take it from me. Read what the experts have to say: “Tobacco use ranks right at the very top of the list of universal threats to health yet is entirely preventable,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan.
“Governments must make it their top priority to stop the tobacco industry’s shameless manipulation of young people and women, in particular, to recruit the next generation of nicotine addicts,” Chan adds.
“Most tobacco users start their deadly drug dependence before the age 20”, says Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of WHO’s Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases department.
“Banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship is one of the best ways to protect young people from starting smoking as well as reducing tobacco consumption across the entire population,” Bettcher goes on to say.
Raising the legal age of drinking to 21 and banning beer-related advertisements will not eradicate alcohol abuse or prevent youths from drinking beer should they choose to do so illegally, but as research and similar preventive measures have shown, such laws can help to foster a culture of responsible drinking and reduce alcohol-related illnesses and accidents.
Do we not owe it to the potentially vulnerable children in schools around South Africa to do more to protect them? When they are over 21, and perhaps mature enough to make the right decisions for themselves, they can choose to drink or not, fairly aware of the health and financial implications of consuming alcohol.