The ‘Mangala Budget’ of the new Finance Minister ran into two or three obstacles – from shipping agents, and also those opposing his move to reduce beer prices aimed at weaning people from hard liquor. In the first cases, it was more the lobby wanting protectionism and in the latter, those who believe prohibition is [...]


Beer, Booze and the new intoxicants


The ‘Mangala Budget’ of the new Finance Minister ran into two or three obstacles – from shipping agents, and also those opposing his move to reduce beer prices aimed at weaning people from hard liquor. In the first cases, it was more the lobby wanting protectionism and in the latter, those who believe prohibition is the answer.

The Minister seems to have refused any compromise. And he got his way with the passage of the Budget last Thursday. A defeat of the Budget would have meant early elections, something nobody wanted. The shipping lobby was at work with the President arguing the possible loss of employment if foreign companies are allowed to do business in Sri Lanka. This is the fundamental difference in economic policies of the National Unity Government partners, the UNP for liberalisation and turning Sri Lanka into a maritime economic hub, while the SLFP lives in a protectionist bubble of safeguarding local industry.

As far as the alcohol policy is concerned, at least it created a long-felt need to have a national debate on the subject. Left alone, this issue is filled with ill-informed discussion and duplicitous humbug.Political leaders deliver sermons on temperance by day and issue liquor licences by night to party supporters. Both the UNP and the SLFP leaderships were the beneficiaries of financial contributions from arrack manufacturers who were allowed to adulterate their brew at will and sell it to the public. Customs and Excise officials were all part of the same huge racket.

The Finance Minister’s comment that sugar-coated soft drinks are worse than beer seems to have been misinterpreted to mean that children should drink beer rather than soft drinks. Surely, that was not what he meant. But child obesity and diabetes are a disturbing reality today. The beer debate must thus be addressed in the overall context of adulterated arrack, the flourishing moonshine (kasippu) industry that thrives due to the high price of arrack and nowadays, the proliferation of narcotics ranging from heroin to ‘Kerala ganja’ down to toffees laced with intoxicant substances that aim to suck schoolkids into harder drugs.

The debate on beer cannot be taken in splendid isolation as a mere alcoholic beverage, but should be seen through the bigger picture of alcohol and narcotics abuse as a whole.Sri Lanka as a nation is not going to follow a policy of prohibition, and so, it is only prudent that there is a realistic alcohol policy. A respected corporate leader of yesteryear wrote to this newspaper on the eve of the Budget, dispelling what he called were “myths” about alcohol and health. There was no such thing as beer and wine being safer than hard alcohol, and what mattered most was the amount of alcohol consumed, he said. He pointed out that beer consumption rose in Sri Lanka due to a misconception that it was ‘softer’ than hard liquor and those who drank beer that has an alcohol content of 8 per cent rose by a staggering 414 per cent from 2006 to 2015. He blamed the high price of licit local alcohol (arrack, gin etc.,) for the increasing kasippu consumption.

Excise policies are way over the top. The Government tries to make out that the taxes imposed on the poor man’s drink (molasses – or Gal, must contain only 3 per cent of coconut arrack – the rest being absolute spirits) is done with altruistic reasons. A bottle of Gal (750 ml) is more than Rs. 1,000 of which 80 per cent is Government taxes. On the other hand, a day’s quota of kasippu is Rs. 150 – no surprises that it is the poor man’s drink!

Former Finance Minister Dr. N.M. Perera, a leader of the working class, knew only too well that the labourer needed a ‘tot’ after a gruelling day’s work. He ensured the poor man got a ‘decent drink’ at an affordable price by creating the State Distilleries Corporation. It was the biggest travesties of the Premadasa Government to have privatized this corporation. Today it neither provides a decent drink nor at an affordable price. If ever there is a case for nationalization – this is one.
One of the matters the incumbent Minister will have to look into with his new policy is to ensure that local beers have a lower alcohol content. The average beer consumed by an American or in a British pub contains 4.2 percent alcohol, while the average Lankan beer has 4.8 percent, going up to 8 percent. In the West there are beers (lager) with as low as 3.3 percent alcohol called Lite beers and Lanka too should have such choices. The local beer manufacturers’ take it or leave it approach gives the consumer no choice in the matter.

Moreover, the surfeit of state and non-government bodies tasked with monitoring tobacco, alcohol and narcotics does not necessarily mean there is cohesive strategic planning. There are Presidential Task Forces, the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, the National Tobacco and Alcohol Authority etc., but all compartmentalised and working within their own mandates. There must be created a super-structure that coordinates the work of all these separate units; one umbrella organisation that acts as a monitor, advisor and regulator of the multibillion rupee tobacco, alcohol and narcotics industry.

This entity must have representatives of Government, the National Child Protection Authority, the Tourism Authority, those from the University Economics and Social Studies Departments, the existing statutory boards, SLANA, unions in the health field and others. This is not a Finance Ministry subject alone. One would normally suggest the Presidential Secretariat or the PMO as a suitable place to oversee it. It cannot be an autonomous body as Governments do not take autonomous bodies seriously.

Available statistics give a grim picture. In 2016 there were 79,378 drug-related cases filed in Sri Lankan courts, most in the Western, Central and Southern Provinces. We are told the Northern Province is a den of vice but police action is minimal. The quantity of cannabis (ganja) seized is phenomenal. That is why the ‘beer debate’ is incomplete without the debate on the ‘bigger picture’.

In the US, the national debate has extended to the excessive use of opioids (prescribed pain-killers) being extensively used as substitutes for narcotics. The authorities have tried legalising marijuana to stem the tide but the situation is almost beyond redemption. According to a US Government Commission, deaths from substance abuse equal deaths that were caused by 9/11 every three weeks. It’s an epidemic and alcohol is the least of their problems.

Sri Lanka must be alive to this trend. What we see is probably only the tip of the iceberg. The Government has to move fast to fight the kasippu industry and the influx of narcotics into the inner cities. Those at the helm must not lose focus on the debate on beer and miss the wood for the trees.


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