South Africans are not the world’s biggest alcohol consumers

A South African minister claims the country tops the international rankings for alcohol consumption. The most recent data shows he’s wrong.

South Africans outdrink all other nations, according to South Africa’s minister of trade and industry Rob Davies.

Davies claimed that “South Africa currently has the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world” at a press briefing where he released the National Liquor Amendment Bill for public comment.

The Bill proposes, among other things, raising the minimum drinking age in South Africa to 21 years.

Is the minister’s claim true?

Source of department’s statistic unknown

The press release published on the department’s website notes, “according to Minister Davies, South Africa currently has the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world at 10-12% as compared to the world average of 6%”.

We contacted the department’s spokesman for comment on how they arrived at these figures but he did not respond to emails and phone calls.

It’s unclear where these percentages come from or what they refer to. The department has previously cited World Health Organisation (WHO) data in their documents, which refers to adult per capita consumption of pure alcohol by the litre.

How much do South Africans drink?

Residents watch the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in a liquor store in the Atteridgeville on June 11, 2010. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP
Residents watch the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in a liquor store in the Atteridgeville on June 11, 2010. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP

WHO produces global alcohol and health status reports, which aim to provide a detailed picture of alcohol consumption across the world for people aged 15 years and older. These reports also describe efforts by the organisation and its member states to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, as well as highlight its health and social consequences.

Its 2014 report shows that total per capita alcohol consumption in South Africa was 11 litres in 2010 – 18.4 litres for males and 4.6 litres for females. When only looking at those that drink, per capita consumption for drinkers of both sexes rose to 27.1 litres of pure alcohol, contained in beer, wine, spirits and other alcoholic drinks.

A total of 59.4% of South Africans abstained from drinking alcohol over the period studied, according to the report. This was made up of 42% of South Africans who had never consumed alcohol and 17.3% who used to drink but had stopped.

SA 30th for total alcohol consumption

The latest WHO data shows that South Africa is not the highest ranked country in the world for alcohol consumption when it comes to total alcohol consumption or total alcohol consumption among drinkers.

The country was ranked 30th highest of 195 countries for total alcohol consumed per capita (11 litres per person) in 2010. Belarus took the top spot with a per capita consumption of 17.5 litres.

WHO data shows that global average alcohol consumption was 6.3 litres per person in 2010, which translates to 13.5 grammes of pure alcohol per day. In Africa, average alcohol consumption was 6 litres per person.

Drinkers’ consumption much higher

Visitors attend an on-site tasting on March 19, 2011 at a vineyard in Franschoek. Photo: Stephane/AFP
Visitors attend an on-site tasting on March 19, 2011 at a vineyard in Franschoek. Photo: Stephane/AFP

Richard Matzopoulous, a senior scientist at the South African Medical Research Council’s Burden of Disease Research Unit, whose research includes looking at the relationship between alcohol and violence, thought Davies may have been mistaken.

He pointed out that “what South Africa is renowned for is one of the highest per capita rates of drinking among the drinking population.”

When this is considered, South Africa climbs to 11th place. The data shows that South African drinkers drank on average 27.1 litres of alcohol in 2010.

South Africa was ranked 59th highest of 195 countries for heavy episodic drinking among those who drink. Drinking at least 60 grammes or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days will place a drinker in this category.

Standard drink measures vary from country to country, but in South Africa, a standard drink contains 12 grammes of pure alcohol. Consuming five-and-a-half glasses of wine (at a typical 12% alcohol volume) or five 340 ml beers (at a typical 5% alcohol volume) on at least one occasion in the last month would be considered “heavy episodic drinking”.

Conclusion: The claim is incorrect according to the most recent WHO data

South Africa does not have the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world. Based on WHO per capita alcohol consumption data, South Africa was ranked 30th out of 195 countries.

The country scores higher when it comes to average alcohol consumption among those who drink. It was ranked 11th highest, with drinkers consuming 27.1 litres each in 2010.

This is certainly very high and according to WHO data the risk profile of such drinking places South Africa at level 4, on a scale from 1 being the least risky to 5 being the most.

Edited by Kate Wilkinson and Noko Makgato


Additional reading

Are up to a third of South Africans at risk of having an ‘alcohol problem’?

No, Nigeria is not the world’s biggest champagne consumer after France

Is Africa the drunk continent? How Time Magazine ignored the data

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