'Use booze tax to fund our trauma units'

Sapa

A trio of top doctors have called on government to set up an alcohol injury fund, bankrolled by taxes on booze, for victims of alcohol-related injury.

The fund could also be used for equipment for beleaguered trauma units, and to finance substance abuse treatment centres, they say in an article in the latest South African Medical Journal.

The doctors are the head of the trauma unit at Cape Town's Red Cross Children's Hospital and director of the Child Accident Prevention Foundation Dr Sebastian van As, director of the Medical Research Council's alcohol and drug abuse research group Dr Charles Parry, and director for social services in the department of finance Dr Mark Blecher.

Blecher says his contribution is made in his private capacity.

These types of earmarked excise taxes for alcohol are fairly unusual internationally and exist, for example, in only two countries in Europe, they say.

However if (South African) government programmes to address this serious public health programme  continue to lag behind, such calls for dedicated financing will become increasingly loud.

The time has come for stronger government action on alcohol.

They say that in stark contrast to the image liquor industry advertising portrays, South Africa suffers particularly heavily from negative consequences of alcohol use.

They say that in 1999, 67 percent of patients at trauma units in a Port Elizabeth hospital had breath alcohol concentrations of 0.05g per 100ml or more.

A national study published in 2002 showed that 52 percent of people dying in transport-related accidents had elevated blood alcohol levels.

They say levels of excise taxes on alcohol are approaching international levels.

Our main concern, however, is that the level of social costs in South Africa, given extremely high levels of alcohol-related violent trauma and accidents, far exceeds that of most other  countries.

This suggests that our excise taxes need to be higher to achieve the correct balance between  benefits and costs.

They say increased taxes should be specifically allocated for prevention and treatment of problems caused by the misuse of alcohol.

These could include counter-alcohol advertisements, alternatives o liquor-industry funded sports sponsorships, and community-based prevention programmes.

The fund could also compensate victims where the perpetrator had been under the influence of  alcohol, by paying for health costs and other damages.

This would also be in accordance with the point made in the draft national liquor policy that we  should move towards a 'polluter pays' policy, they say. Source: Sapa 10 November 2003).