Towards a rational alcohol policy | Daily News

Towards a rational alcohol policy

A news report that the Government was losing excise revenue to the tune of Rs. 1,000 million every three days as a result of the total closure of liquor outlets in the country owing to the current lockdown is a reflection of the growing number of imbibers in the country and the questionable liquor policies of all Governments. That the Government stands to lose a whopping Rs. 3 billion each month if the liquor outlets remain closed also is a reflection of the drastic depletion of revenue sources brought about by the pandemic.

This is leaving out the thriving illicit liquor industry in the country, whose takings, if allied to the monthly revenue loss of Rs. 3 billion, no doubt, would fill the State coffers in a manner to rival or even exceed the revenue from the traditional exports. One has to remember that they do not pay a cent in taxes.

This is a time for reflection on the anti-alcohol policies under all regimes that have evidently not worked. Whether these anti-alcohol drives were genuinely pursued or were mere cosmetic exercises could be judged from the steep rise in the excise revenue over the years. It is well-known that politicians from all sides have acquired permits to operate Wine Stores, bars and restaurants in their names or that of their nominees, most often family members, and liquor outlets mushroomed in the country defeating the whole purpose of anti-alcohol programmes but also bringing with it additional revenue to the State coffers.

The late Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who represented a coastal electorate in the Gampaha District, known for its flourishing illicit liquor trade, once told Parliament that he was opposed to introducing such programmes in his area as the people there always started their day after a drink. One of his predecessors in the UNP Government even wanted the Government to legalize the distillation of Moonshine in his electorate and make this a taxed cottage industry.

There is much ambiguity in the country’s liquor policy adopted by all Governments who tended to blow hot and cold in this regard. All efforts to end or at least minimize alcoholism in the country have met with only limited success as the figures indicate. Even religious leaders whose duty it is to go all out in enjoining the Government to ban liquor sales in the country had been rather lukewarm on this issue. On the other hand, former Minister Mangala Samaraweera wanted liquor outlets opened at least 13 hours a day and even advocated that bars and taverns be opened on Poya Days - a move which drew protests from the Maha Sangha and sections of society.

All this no doubt goes to show how indecisive all regimes have been towards the eradication of alcohol use in the country. On the contrary, while giving the impression of wanting to rid the country of the alcohol menace, the business has been encouraged through the issuance of additional liquor permits permitting the opening of new liquor outlets sometimes near schools and places of religious worship making the alcohol trade flourish without let or hindrance while raking in the shekels to fill the coffers.

It is therefore time that the authorities stop fooling the public and come straight. In this respect one has to commend the Deputy Finance Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government Prof. G. L. Peiris who rather than do away with alcohol sales in the country altogether wanted the people to be encouraged to go for soft liquor such a beer and wine. He argued that the larger volume of sales of soft liquor through such an exercise would offset the revenue lost through the anticipated drop in the sale of hard liquor and also drive people away from illicit liquor.

However it is doubtful if this theory would work at consumer level since those imbibers of hard liquor are hardly likely to switch to the soft ones, particularly those out in the hard grind in their daily lives who invariably go for the rotgut.

Hence, it would be prudent for the Government to make the popular brands of hard liquor affordable to the vast majority of imbibers so that they will not veer towards moonshine, popularly known as kasippu. Any loss thereby incurred could be made up in terms of reduced health budgets, a good portion of which is today siphoned off to treat a range of serious ailments related to the illicit brews.

Meanwhile it has reported that the lockdown notwithstanding the sale of liquor is being carried out on the sly in several areas forcing the Government to seal all Wine Stores in the country until the lifting of the lockdown of June 7. This therefore is an acknowledgement that liquor addiction is a phenomenon that could not be fought by Governments and regulatory bodies with slogans and sermons and the only option open is to make standard legal liquor available to the people at an affordable price.