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ARTICLE: PRIVATE LIVES AND PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITIES

private I have never, in my entire life, had even a puff of a cigarette. True, I did smoke a cigar 29 years ago when my son was born - but like Bill Clinton I did not inhale. Although I dislike smoking I am fairly tolerant of those who are addicted to tobacco (I have little choice since my wife enjoys the occasional cigarette). Nevertheless, I am happy that people may no longer smoke in planes, restaurants and other public places. I also believe that government should be commended for its vigorous anti-smoking campaign - which has cut smoking by 50% in the past 20 years.

However, current proposals of the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, to ban tobacco entirely may be a bridge too far. A total ban on cigarettes would simply drive the tobacco trade underground - and create lucrative opportunities for organised crime. More seriously, a total ban would interfere with the perfectly legitimate right of individuals to smoke if they so wish in places where they will not inconvenience non-smokers. The irony is that at the very time when some people are beginning to call for a total ban on tobacco, others - often from the same constituency - are campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis!

In another intrusion into the private lives of citizens, legislation will soon be introduced to stop parents from spanking their children. Children’s rights organisations have presented convincing arguments that spanking does not improve behaviour and instills the idea that violence is an acceptable way of dealing with problems in human relationships.

However, such a ban would be vehemently opposed by the vast majority of parents and by most churches. It would also be virtually impossible to enforce. Recent surveys show that despite an absolute prohibition of corporal punishment in schools the practice is widespread - and is increasing. Enforcement might criminalise millions of well-intentioned and loving parents. Opponents of the ban argue that it would be an unacceptable intrusion into the private affairs of families - and that there are already sufficient laws to protect children from abuse.

Now the government is apparently intent on banning all alcohol advertisements.

Once again, there are cogent reasons to combat alcohol abuse. According to the Department of Health "the (annual) tangible costs of alcohol in South Africa have been estimated to be close to R38bn". It is the "third leading risk factor for death and disability in South Africa" and is the cause of more than half the country's road deaths. "Alcohol is associated with 70% of domestic violence, 25% of weapons-related offences, 22% of rapes, 17% of murders, 14% of assault cases and 10% of robberies."

However, the liquor industry is a major component of the economy. SAB-Miller alone contributes R66.2 billion to the broader economy, equal to 3.1% of GDP - and is responsible for 355 000 jobs in the wider economy. Add to this the R26 billion contribution of the wine industry and the 280 000 jobs that it provides and one begins to get some idea of our national economic dependency on the liquor business. It is a core attraction in the Western Cape’s tourist industry and wine exports are an important earner of foreign exchange.

Apart from this, liquor advertising represents about 10% of the country’s annual R17 billion annual advertising expenditure. A ban on liquor ads would be a further blow to the already depressed print media - and would be a serious setback for organised sport, which is often dependent on lucrative liquor-supported sponsorships.

Also, unlike the case with tobacco, moderate use of wine (and beer and spirits) can, according to the experts, be beneficial. It is deeply ingrained in our culture and is one of the innocent enjoyments of life for millions of people. I agree with the slogan (which would now, no doubt, be banned) "a day without wine is like a day without sunshine."

Perhaps the central objection to the state’s increasing intrusion into the private lives of citizens is that it constricts their freedom to make core decisions regarding their own lives and intimate relationships. People must be allowed to make their own way in life - even if their decisions are not in their own best interest. That is what freedom means.

The state has no role to play in interfering with such decisions. It must, indeed, ensure that individuals do not harm or abuse their neighbours or members of their families. The state also has a role in ensuring that people are fully informed regarding the consequences of smoking or drinking to excess - and it has a long-accepted duty to protect children from tobacco and alcohol abuse. However, it has no right to tell people that they may not smoke at all - or to prevent the producers of perfectly legitimate wines and liquors from advertising their products.

Whenever the state intervenes in the personal decisions of citizens the outcome of its policies is very often the opposite of its intention. Mr Motsoaledi should study the United States’ experience of prohibition. A ban on tobacco would simply create more opportunities for gangsters; a ban on liquor advertising would damage the economy and place hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk; it would be a blow to organised sport and would severely interfere with the legitimate activities of producers and consumers.

Above all, government should show common sense and balanced judgment when dealing with such sensitive topics and should recognise and accept the proper boundaries between the private lives of citizens and the public responsibilities of the state. It has a valid role to play in combating social ills - particularly through well-targeted information campaigns and sensible and balanced regulations. However, it should not to interfere in the private lives, intimate family relationships and legitimate life-decisions of citizens. Above all, it must remember it is the servant - and not the master - or the nanny - of the people.

Dave Steward: Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation


 

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