WHILE the severity of the massive and mushrooming nationwide scourge of addiction is acknowledged by South Africa’s public and private sectors and most ordinary citizens, no comprehensive and reliable research exists to even benchmark how to begin addressing the crisis.
“Everyone knows there is a problem. Everyone pledges to address it. Virtually everyone in the country knows someone affected by addiction in one or other of its myriad forms. But nobody has the vaguest idea of the size of it or let alone how to start combating it. While our laws still do not acknowledge gambling, sex and pornography as addictions, the consciousness around the issue remains primitive and prevention methods ineffective,” says Warren Whitfield, founder of The Addiction Action Campaign.
The AAC recently staged a peaceful protest demonstration outside the Sandton headquarters of brewery giant, SAB Miller, to hand over memorandums to representatives of the alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical, gambling and pornography industries. Despite being directly and individually invited to accept their memorandums, not a single representative – aside from Vincent Maphai, CEO of SAB Miller – could be bothered. None even tendered an apology.
“This, tragically, is symptomatic of a pervasive devil-may-care attitude within the ‘addiction industry’. Profits are invariably put ahead of people,” says Whitfield, who condemned the lack of sensitivity – even callousness – towards the reality and tragedy of addiction. “They all cite ‘personal responsibility’ as the problem whilst almost denying any corporate accountability.”
“Leaders who should know better prefer to deliberately ignore the problem or fob off an increasingly anxious public with grandiose marketing gestures under the guise of corporate social investment,” says Whitfield, who is at pains to emphasise that the AAC does not oppose the legitimacy or rights of these industries to profitable business practices.
“We do, however, demand that these companies plough back an appropriate portion of their vast profits into preventing addiction, treatment and investing in reducing the harm their legitimate practices cause. The fact that we know so little about the extent and severity of the crisis in South Africa is ample proof of how incredibly ignorant the very industries that breed addiction are about the harm they cause.”
With only SABMiller showing any sensitivity to the crisis of alcoholism in SA, which has dubious distinction of having highest level of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the world, the AAC has condemned the “ignorance, deliberate neglect and callous insensitivity” of:
The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa,
Pharmaceutical Industry Association of SA,
Innovative Medicines of South Africa,
National Association of Pharmaceutical Manufactures,
Self Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa,
National Gambling Board,
National Responsible Gambling,
JT Publishing (Hustler),
The Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA),
SA Liquor Brand Owner’s Association,
Douglas Green Bellingham,
E Snell & Co,
The Really Great Brand Company,
Wine Cellars SA,
Tsogo Sun Group,
Casino Association of South Africa.
“In our discussions with these companies and industry groups, we’ve been gobsmacked by levels of ignorance about the size and devastating effects of addiction and the arrogant apathy towards finding lasting solutions to the underlying problems. They either claim no such problem exists – as did Joe Theron, publisher of “Hustler” – throw up their arms in impotence or cower behind the irresponsible assertion that they are doing nothing illegal,” says Whitfield.
“Without extensive, well-funded and scientific research projects to try to understand the extent of addiction in all its forms and what is and is not addictive behaviour, current efforts at rehabilitation and encouraging responsible behaviour, vital as these are, are tantamount to addressing HIV/Aids or cancer with a couple of aspirin.”
The AAC are endorsed by NEHAWU, and with their own current membership of around 5000, will take their cause to the High Court and the Constitutional Court to request a ruling on the legitimacy of profiting from addiction.
“We must always remember that the fundamental difference between people who enjoy alcohol, gambling, pornography and even tobacco and use pharmaceutical products in the ways in which they were intended, and addicts, is that addicts cannot control their behaviour and in almost all cases, do not want to be using the substance or service that they are addicted to. Our essential position is then that it is unethical, immoral and, indeed, illegal to profit from people who cannot help themselves. If you profit from addiction, then you are enabling it. And if you are enabling it, then you are causing harm,” says Whitfield.