Towards a sober view on liquor | Daily News

Towards a sober view on liquor

Liquor sales have dropped by a significant 30 per cent following the Government’s move to slap the Value Added Tax (VAT) on all alcoholic beverages, the Committee on Public Finance was told recently. The Committee chaired by MP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa was told that a combination of taxes and a drop in the incomes of the people have resulted in most imbibers turning to illicit brews.

Hence, it is doubtful if the State would be able to collect the intended revenue Via VAT (the Excise Dept. had already declared that it had no hand in the price increase). As the days progress and financial hardships mount there could be a further drop in imbibers of legal liquor. If this happens the result would be a negative one for the Government in terms of revenue collection. On the contrary, whatever earned through the increase in VAT is bound to get wiped out in terms of an increased health budget to treat diseases resulting from the consumption of rot gut.

It was reported that during the pandemic, the Government lost a whopping Rs. 3 billion each month as a result of the closure of liquor outlets. It appears that the Government is now attempting to recoup these losses. But this strategy could backfire. There is a thriving illicit liquor industry, whose takings, if allied to the monthly revenue loss of Rs. 3 billion would fill the State coffers in a manner to rival or even exceed the revenue from traditional exports. And illicit brewers do not pay a cent in taxes.

This is also 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. Politicians from all sides have acquired permits to operate Wine Stores and bars in their names or that of their nominees, and liquor outlets have mushroomed defeating the whole purpose of anti-alcohol programmes but also bringing additional revenue.

The late Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, who represented a coastal electorate 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 even wanted the Government to legalize the distillation of Moonshine in his electorate and make it a taxed cottage industry.

There is much ambiguity in the liquor policy adopted by all Governments who tended to blow hot and cold in this regard. All efforts to end or minimize alcoholism have met with only limited success. Even religious leaders whose duty is to urge the Government to limit liquor sales had been rather lukewarm on this issue.

On the other hand, former Minister Mangala Samaraweera wanted retail liquor outlets opened at least 13 hours a day and even advocated that some taverns be opened on Poya Days - a move which drew protests from the Maha Sangha and other sections of society.

All this goes to show how indecisive all regimes have been towards the eradication of alcohol use. 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 even 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.

The authorities should stop fooling the public and come straight. In this respect one has to commend the Deputy Finance Minister in the Chandrika Bandaranaike 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 as 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 imbibers of hard liquor are hardly likely to switch to the soft ones, particularly those out in the hard grind in their daily lives. It is all the more reason to make at least the popular brands of 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 now siphoned off to treat serious ailments related to the consumption of illicit brews.

Besides, we are a democracy that respects choice. The drinkers probably know about the harmful effects of alcohol, yet imbibe anyway. They should be free to make that choice.

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