The move to introduce flexible hours for the operation of liquor shops is indeed a sound one which on the one hand while raking in additional excise revenue would also halt the practice of stockpiling of liquor at homes for special occasions.
The decision was announced by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament while presenting Budget 2024. In most other countries there are no specific hours for opening and closing liquor shops.
Keeping bars and liquor shops open late would also attract the tourist trade. As it is, the closure of bars at 9 pm would mean that there is no night life worth mentioning which could result in tourists being attracted to other countries where there are no restrictions imposed on the operation of liquor shops.
Removing restrictions on operating hours of liquor shops would also somewhat kill the moonshine industry that thrives when bars are closed early, making the habitual drinker look elsewhere for his ‘shot’ at a much cheaper cost.
Far from removing restrictions on closing time for liquor shops, the late Minister Mangala Samaraweera advocated that liquor shops should be opened even on Poya days, which was not well-received among religious circles. As our religious leaders are well aware, hardly any drinker of whatever religion keeps off the bottle on Poya day or any other day significant to other faiths.
Most Governments adopt this holier than thou attitude in imposing restrictions on the consumption of liquor, the current exception being State Minister for Tourism Diana Gamage.
Speaking in Parliament the other day she insisted that the Government should reduce the prices of alcoholic drinks in order to increase sales and thus collect additional excise revenue for the State coffers. More people will then purchase alcohol if the prices are reduced and tax revenue could be increased, she maintained.
Presently, following the doubling of all liquor prices, sales of alcohol has dropped by nearly 40 percent, with the State hard-pressed to raise excise revenue. Although State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya cited moral grounds for raising liquor prices he could not be unaware that although liquor is not purchased at the Wine Stores, restaurants and other liquor outlets, drinkers have by no means given up the habit.
They now go for the deadly moonshine (kasippu) at great risk to their health. This development could also place a heavy strain on the country’s health budget since the Government will now have to incur additional expenditure for treating those now addicted to the poisonous brew. Of course, the moonshine distillers do not pay any taxes to the Government.
Besides, nobody will buy into the claim that the prices of alcohol were being raised based on moral grounds. We have heard this number played by Government leaders before this too. There was a well-known effort to wean the public from the drinking habit under the slogan of ‘Mathata Thitha’.
But its outcome is common knowledge to all and sundry. Government politicians were granted liquor licences to operate bars which they did to their heart’s content under their own names or that of kith and kin. The liquor outlets continued to mushroom at all street corners with even the distance rule which applies where schools and places of religious worship were concerned too observed in the breach.
The late Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who represented an electorate in the Gampaha district known for its thriving illicit liquor industry once told Parliament that his electorate be spared the ‘MathataThitha’ rule since all his folk commence their day after a couple.
This, while UNP Minister Harold Herath, also hailing from a similar electorate in the North Western Province, even spoke in favour of developing the moonshine trade as a cottage industry adhering to proper standards. This is indeed how the Scottish Whisky industry developed. So much for politicians moralising on the evils of alcohol. In that respect, State Minister Gamage should receive the praise of all for being realistic and not speaking wearing blinkers.
On the contrary, what should be done by the Government is to have a rational liquor policy. The first thing is to take cognizance of the fact that increasing the price of liquor will not make imbibers give up drinking. As already mentioned, they would be driven to harm themselves even more.
Liquor- particularly the popular brands- should be reasonably priced so that it will be within the reach of the common man. At present, even middle-income earners can ill-afford the price of a bottle of gal arrack. The Government should also realise that partaking in alcohol is not always done due to addiction.
In most cases, people after a hard day’s grind at their workplaces take their usual drink as a means of relaxation in the evenings. It is such folk that are badly hit today by the inordinate rise in the price of liquor. The Government should think of catering to this segment of the public by bringing down the price of liquor to a reasonable level. This way, while providing a cheap form of relaxation that would make all happy, it could also increase Government revenue by a considerable level.