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Alcohol bans reduced deaths, study finds

Government’s controversial alcohol bans are strongly associated with a large drop in unnatural deaths. This is a finding by University of Cape Town (UCT) and Medical Research Council (MRC) researchers, in a study published on Friday in the South African Medical Journal.

Tom Moultrie and his colleagues compared weekly unnatural deaths (murders, vehicle collisions, suicides and accidents) estimated by the MRC during alcohol restrictions and curfews, from end of December 2019 to late April 2021.

The researchers assigned one of three categories to alcohol restrictions for each week: no restrictions, partial restrictions (when alcohol could only be sold Monday to Thursdays) and full bans.

They then applied a standard statistical model known as a regression analysis and found that there was a strong association between alcohol restrictions and reductions in unnatural deaths, regardless of curfew lengths.

“This effect increases with increasing duration of curfew, but even with fairly modest curfew hours (4 – 7 hours), full restriction on alcohol of curfew had the effect of reducing unnatural deaths by around 42 deaths per day, or 26%,” wrote the authors.

“The complete restriction on the sale of alcohol resulted in a statistically significant reduction in unnatural deaths regardless of the length of curfew. To the contrary, periods where no or limited restrictions on alcohol were in force had no significant effect, or resulted in significantly increased unnatural deaths,” they wrote.

The drop in unnatural deaths associated with a full alcohol ban ranged from 42 deaths per day under a curfew of 4 to 7 hours to 74 per day under full lockdown.

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This study refutes one published by the alcohol industry that found that the ban on alcohol sales and consumption did not reduce trauma unit admissions. It is consistent with a study at Worcester hospital that found reduced trauma admissions with a full alcohol ban.

Moultrie and his colleagues state that their findings “strengthen the case for the implementation of bans on the sale of alcohol as part of the emergency response to ease the demand for emergency healthcare services during Covid-19”.

But they add: “Yet such a strategy also raises complex policy-related issues. While complete restrictions on sale of alcohol might avert unnatural deaths and contribute to preventing overload of the healthcare system during surges of Covid-19, long-term implementation of this policy would require significant trade-offs in terms of economic activity, as well as lives and livelihoods.”

They conclude that their study adds to the evidence that will help adopt evidence-based approaches to reducing alcohol harm “through actions such as stricter advertising and promotions restrictions, minimum unit pricing, increased excise taxes, raising the minimum drinking age, restrictions on container sizes, etc”.

First published on Ground Up

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