For a rational liquor policy | Daily News


 

For a rational liquor policy

The shocking revelation that the consumption of illicit alcohol (moonshine or kasippu) in the country has grown by as much as 300 percent, no doubt, will be viewed with concern by health authorities and those involved in the various temperance movements, not to mention religious leaders.

According to a WHO study, while illicit alcohol consumption has grown by 300 percent between 2003 and 2016 legal alcohol consumption has increased by only 50 percent. The report states: “Despite the initiatives taken by the Ministry of Health and National Alcohol and Tobacco Authority (NATA), most of the Health Indicators have worked negatively due to the inconsistent taxation and pricing policies which do not support the health policies of the country.”

It has been the practice of all Governments to wield the big stick on imbibers, hypocritical as it is, since Excise Duties constitute the bulk of State revenue. Liquor prices are increased in all budgets or in the pre-budget period with the stated aim of discouraging alcohol use although production levels show no signs of diminishing according to a recent newspaper article that reported a galloping rise in the production of many popular brands of arrack.

Needless to say, the periodic increase, certainly, drives the committed drinker to look for cheaper alternatives. The steep increase in the consumption the illicit brew over a period of time is a direct result of all Governments’ imprudent liquor policies. In this respect Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera deserves praise for his bid to reduce the price of a popular type of arrack some time ago which unfortunately came a cropper due to protests by the Buddhist clergy.

Minister Samaraweera, who is no stranger to controversy, even went one better by suggesting that bars and liquor outlets be opened on Poya Days (with longer opening hours on regular days) and that females be allowed to serve liquor at restaurants which also drew heavy flak from the same quarters. Minister Samaraweera though succeeded in bringing beer prices down with a view to making the habitual imbiber shift to soft liquor.

The same theory was peddled by Prof. G. L. Peiris when he was Deputy Finance Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government based on the premise that the sheer numbers that would take to beer following the price drop would not diminish the excise revenue that would otherwise be lost by the shift from arrack.

It is moot though that the hard drinker would go for the cheaper soft liquor. Once addicted to the hard stuff there can be no let going. Hence, the staggering rise in the consumption of moonshine, as revealed, among the hard drinkers who could no longer afford the regular brew. The Government therefore should take a holistic view of its liquor policies and move in to ameliorate the situation.

To begin with, it should stop increasing the prices of local spirits periodically and rationalize the pricing so that at least the popular brands would be within reach of the common man who after a hard grind would relish his tot. As mentioned, all Governments have found the liquor industry a convenient milch cow to fill in the coffers oblivious to the fact that by driving the imbiber to the rotgut it would lose on the long run.

This is because it is bound to be confronted with a bloated health budget in having to treat the corroded organ systems of the increasing numbers who are addicted to the illicit brew. Continuing raids on almost a daily basis, as shown on television, gives an indication on the extent to which the (completely untaxed) moonshine industry has grown in this country.

The Government should also not waste its time and energy on programmes to combat alcohol consumption. All anti-alcohol campaigns before this have not succeeded. Else there would not be a 50 percent increase in legal alcohol consumption, according to the WHO study.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched Mathata Titha (fullstop to alcohol) with much fanfare. Before long this slogan was reversed to Tithata Matha (Fully drunk) by newspaper cartoonists when it became apparent that liquor licenses were being dispensed with liberally to Government politicians and “Wine Stores” were even opened near temples and schools. Besides, the late Jeyaraj Fernandopulle told Parliament that the Mathata Titha concept did not apply to his constituents in Katana who began their day with a deep swig. The much heralded anti-alcohol campaigns of Prof. Carlo Fonseka, too, it appears, had failed to have any impact.

Hence the Government should adopt a Live and Let Live policy where our imbibers are concerned. Anyway, liquor addiction has a direct link with poverty, according to numerous studies. The fact that alcoholism is rampant in the plantations where even women have fallen prey is indicative of this. The Government, therefore, should tackle the problem at the roots. Instead of attempting the futile exercise of weaning the already addicted from the bottle it should educate the young, beginning at school level on the evils of alcohol. Religious and community leaders could be co-opted in this noble exercise.


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