Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Should one "label" alcoholic products?
By Dr W Alberts

It seems that the government is slowly moving in on such vices that still do exist in our society. Already, strict prohibitions are in place regarding tobacco products. Recently, notice was given by the Minister of Health of the intention to clamp down on, amongst others, fast food products (including hamburgers and "carbonated soft drinks" – read Coke). In eighteen months’ time, certain requirements will have to be complied with by the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages (it is to be noted that the term "alcoholic beverage" includes beer and traditional African beer). These regulations were issued by the Minister under section 15 of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act 54 of 1972.

The Regulations relate to seven so-called "health messages," being the following:

· Alcohol reduces driving ability, don’t drink and drive;
· Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed; 
· Alcohol increases your risk [of] personal injuries;
· Alcohol is a major cause of violence and crime;
· Alcohol abuse is dangerous to your health;
· Alcohol is addictive; and
· Drinking during pregnancy can be harmful to your unborn baby.
These warnings can obviously have implications for (commercial) freedom of speech. Leaving that aside for the moment, one cannot help but reflect on the irony of having to choose which one of the "health messages" one should place on the label concerned. However, the public health benefits of these warnings can be appreciated. To what extent such warnings will impart information to consumers of which they were not aware previously, is uncertain though.

The Regulations determine that these health messages must be visible, legible and indelible. They should not be obscured by any other matter. They must also appear in a space specifically devoted to them, and must be at least one eighth of the total size of the container’s label. The message must be in black on a white background. These provisions relate to information which must be contained on the particular product’s label. Certain statements must, in contrast, not appear on the label. The use of the words "health", "healthy", "cure", "heal", "restorative" (or other words or symbols claiming that the alcoholic beverage has health-giving, medicinal or prophylactic properties as part of the name or descriptions of the product) is prohibited. Alcohol forming part of, for instance, cough medicine, will presumably not be affected!

It is also prohibited to create the impression that any health organisation supports the product, and it is also prohibited to refer to certain medicines legislation. At least one beer product currently on the market depicts an association with a health organization, being the Heart Foundation.

The marketing of liquor takes place in a number of prominent places in the South African landscape. For one, in relation to the Springbok rugby team. Other examples are sponsorship of sporting and cultural events. Importantly, it adds humour to advertisements on television. Will these promotional activities have to cease? It seems not. The Regulations are framed very specifically to relate only to the labels of the containers for alcohol products. Advertisements, for instance, will thus not be required to feature the proposed warnings – for the time being. It will only become clear in time whether these warnings will be extended to actual advertise-ments, and whether a total ban on advertising will follow. This raises the fundamental question: is alcohol as detrimental to society as tobacco products are said to be? Put that in your pipe.