Is South Africa an Addict Nation?

Written by Warren Whitfield. Posted in Articles, Causes


(This an edited & enhanced version of a report originally featured on LeadSA’s website –

south-africa-addiction-statisticsOne in four South Africans suffer from an addiction of some sort. Yet, less than 1% have access to treatment. More than 60% of the alcohol industry’s income is derived from misuse. Nothing is spent on treatment. Addiction & substance abuse kills more people in SA annually than HIV/Aids does.

These are just a few of the frightening statistics that the Addiction Action Campaign (AAC) highlights during Drug Awareness Week. The AAC is a national registered non-profit organisation founded by my friend and huge inspiration Warren Whitfield, and exists for the benefit of all South Africans regardless of race, religion, culture or creed. It was started in 2007 and I’m proud to be its pro bono editor.

I recently spent more than an hour chatting to Telkom staff via their internal T Channel live TV news network. I shared the platform with Chris Schuler, a private psychiatrist, and Lungelo Mavuso, from the amazing bunch at Sadag (SA Depression & Anxiety Group, Africa’s biggest NGO in mental health). As I’ve done for more than 10 years of sobriety now, I spoke openly, no-holds-barred, no-cork-unpulled about my alcoholism and the tough road of recovery I’ll walk for the rest of my life. The responses far outstripped any national radio or TV talkshow on which I’ve participated. So, BIG Ups to all the Telkom people. Yours is a step in the right direction.

Whitfield is also the author of Addict Nation: The epidemic of addiction in South Africa today. While writing the book, he realised there were very few statistics available on addiction in South Africa. The epidemic of addiction in our country is massive. Far greater than most people realise. One normally thinks of addiction in terms of illegal drugs and alcohol, but millions of South Africans are slaves to a vast range of addictions such as illegal substances, legal substances as well as behaviours.

Warren says: “Ten years ago, I found myself homeless on the streets of Durban because of all of my addictions. Having lost both my parents at the age of 16 to their addictions, I spent the next 14 years struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction until I finally ended up on the streets. I was very fortunate to be given an opportunity to recover and spent nine months full-time in treatment. While in treatment, I realised how lucky I was to be given the opportunity. I later studied counselling and then ran an addiction support group for about two years. Over the following four years, I was involved in assisting more than 1,400 addicts address their addictions.

“Five years ago, I went to New York to study to become an Auricular Detoxification Specialist and worked in a busy clinic in South Bronx which treated as many as 300 addicts a day on an outpatient basis.

“Over the years, I realised the incredible need South Africa had in providing treatment to people with addictions. Most of the people I tried to help simply could not afford treatment or had no access to treatment because of literacy or cultural barriers. I realised the country needed a lobby group, which would represent the rights of all South Africans, in addressing the many addictions in the country and providing treatment for everyone. I was inspired by local HIV/Aids activist Zackie Achmat, who had started the Treatment Action Campaign many years ago. I realised that Achmat’s unselfish acts resulted in the lives of millions of South Africans with HIV/Aids being saved and the Addiction Action Campaign was born.”

The AAC exists to reduce the harm caused by the existence and sale of addictive products or services whether they are legal or illegal. One must, therefore, focus on the demand and on harm reduction. See the AAC Addiction Harm Reduction Compliancy Initiative

The AAC exists to address the following issues:
1) South Africa has become dependent to income generated from the sale of addictive products or services. Government must ensure SA becomes independent of its dependency on “sin taxes” and other impostes earned from addiction. As usual, it is doing a very bad job of addressing its own “addiction”.

2) South Africa’s dependency on income derived from addictive products and or services, which actually enables addiction. All this income should be used exclusively for the purposes of addiction & substance abuse treatment and prevention.

3) Industries that sell addictive products or services are responsible for the treatment costs of people who are addicted to their products etc. Namely cigarettes, alcohol, casinos, pornographers and pharmaceutical companies and others. If an industry profits from a dependency, i.e. if people cannot control their intake of a product or service because they are addicted to it, then the level of spending on harm reduction must match the level of profit made from that dependency.

4) The country’s consciousness concerning the severity of addiction in SA needs to change. Government must become actively involved in educating South Africans about the dangers of using ANY substance, product or service which is addictive.

5) More people in SA are addicted to a substance, product, service or behaviour than there are people living with HIV/Aids. Government must publicly admit this fact and present a plan of action to the South African people on how it will strive towards a society free of addiction.

6) The most dangerous addictive services and products are all legal. If alcohol or cigarettes were invented today, they would be instantly be illegal because they are so dangerous. Government must do everything in its power to reduce the harm these products cause to South Africans.

7) South Africa’s law makers and industry professionals must accept harm reduction philosophies and implement strategies which ensure that if harm is being caused, there must be accountability and programmes in place to reduce such harm.

Every South African has a basic human right to proper health care. This right is grossly neglected and has been for the 17 years of democracy – largely due to government apathy, lack of political will and pure ignorance. As a result scores of thousands of people die every year – and the death toll is rising. We believe every South African has a right to high quality addiction treatment which is affordable. Unfortunately, this is not the case, with 95% of people needing addiction treatment not having access to treatment because it is unaffordable and only available in English and Afrikaans.

More Statistics:
* 15% of South Africans are problem drug users. This means, in excess of 7.35-million people in this country need treatment now.
* More than 55% of the casino industry’s income is derived from problem gamblers. Less than 0.1% of their R16.2-billion income is spent on treatment – and most of that is spent on advertising which has been proved ineffective anyway and misdirects public credibility by shifting the responsibility to the victim.
* If addiction was eliminated entirely, crime in the Western Cape would be reduced by 80% and by 60% in Gauteng.

AAC National Helpline – 079-066-3382 – Mon to Friday, 8am to 5pm
For more information visit For information on Sadag, visit


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