Government plans to regulate choices regarding health and lifestyle threaten the rights of South African consumers.
This is according to Leon Louw, Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation, which hosted a media briefing in Johannesburg, where consumers were encouraged to fight for their rights.
He is concerned about the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi’s, intention to further regulate and discriminate against consumers of sugar, salt, fat, fast food, cold drinks, alcohol, tobacco, sweets, complimentary and alternative medicines, and potentially, consumers of other products and services. Anti-consumer controls are planned in other areas, such as severe restrictions and prohibitions on the consumer rights regarding health and medical insurance, and deletion of favourable credit ratings.
“While the Minister’s intention to make citizens adopt healthier lifestyles is honourable, we should not sacrifice our rights as consumers on the nanny state altar. Government may legitimately inform and educate consumers, and encourage responsible behaviour, but should never dictate what, where and how we eat, drink, smoke or care for our own health,” says Louw.
Instead of eroding consumer freedom, the Department of Health should do a better job of performing its core functions of providing information and education to enable emancipated consumers to make informed decisions, and to provide decent public health facilities.
“There are examples in South Africa and elsewhere to the effect that education rather than regulation is more effective. Success in combating HIV-Aids is probably the best example where education in the complete absence of regulation has been extraordinarily effective,” says Louw.
Louw believes that the only legitimate form of regulation is that which protects third parties, such victims of drunk driving or passive smoking. Measures that erode personal freedom, on the other hand, disempower consumers by removing their right to be informed by advertising and marketing about prices, product availability, new products, warnings and customer care. They are also entitled to and protected by free competition and innovation amongst competitors.
Existing regulations and far-reaching draconian regulations under consideration amount to a full-scale attack on consumers whose spending contributes billions of rands to our economy, generates billions of rands in taxes, and employs many thousands of people.
Examples of proposed regulations include the prohibition of alcohol advertising and marketing, raising the age limits for alcohol sales to 21 years, age restrictions for fast food sales, limitations on how much salt consumers may have in their food, discriminatory sugar taxes, prohibition of the right to smoke in private places, and the prohibition of health insurance. The Minister of Health said there would be a ban on the consumer’s right to branded packaging and for easy access to tobacco products.
“The Minister of Health confirmed last week that South Africa would aim to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products in 2015. Australia is the only country to have implemented plain packaging of cigarettes, which might, in any event, be unconstitutional in South Africa. Besides which, cigarette sales in Australia actually increased in the 15 months following mandatory plain packaging,” says Louw.
Louw suggests that the best way for consumers to ward off the assault on their rights over a broad front is for consumers to start collective action to voice their opposition to draconian regulations, and for civil society organisations, especially trade unions whose members include some of the most victimised consumers, to do what they can to protect consumer rights.
“If we don’t speak up now, the erosion of consumer rights will not stop until everything with health risks, from salt to sex, will be regulated, and all products with health implications, will either be banned or bland, where consumers will be denied information imparted by advertising, marketing, packaging and display, and where everything they like will warn them against doing so. Health Puritans have a bleak future in mind for consumers.
“If the government respects consumers and voters, it should resist self-serving anti-consumer activists, and reconsider existing proposals. Consumers should formulate a Consumer Bill of Rights,” says Louw.
He says it should include, for instance:
- The right to information through advertising, marketing and labelling.
- The right to appropriate health and safety warnings.
- The right to appealing packaging.
- The right to free competition and innovation amongst suppliers.
- The right to seek support, funding and sponsorships from all lawful enterprises.
- The right to government education, advice, encouragement and assistance, rather than control.
- The right to be treated like emancipated and empowered adults with dignity and respect.
- The right to make informed choices regarding risk-benefits trade-offs.
- The right to choose between a wide range of products, services, outlets and payment options.
The Free Market Foundation (FMF) is an independent, non-profit, public benefit organisation, created in 1975 by pro-free market business and civil society national bodies to work for a non-racial, free and prosperous South Africa. As a policy organisation it promotes sound economic policies and the principles of good law. As a think tank it seeks and puts forward solutions to some of the country’s most pressing problems: unemployment, poverty, growth, education, health care, electricity supply, and more. The FMF was instrumental in the post apartheid negotiations and directly influenced the Constitutional Commission to include the property rights clause: a critical cornerstone of economic freedom.
The FMF has a wealth of information in papers, articles and opinion pieces available on the website which can influence the public debate and present alternative policies to the people of South Africa. Please look at www.freemarketfoundation.com.
For more information / interviews:
Leon Louw, Director, Free Market Foundation
Tel: 011 884 0270