A barrage of criticism has come in the wake of the government’s decision to slash the tax on beer. The government should have a serious re-think of this particular budgetary proposal — allegedly made on the basis of a so-called ‘research’ now under fire — gracefully accept the criticism and change it in the public [...]


Docs raise concern: Slashing beer prices will pave the way for ‘gateway’ drinking


A barrage of criticism has come in the wake of the government’s decision to slash the tax on beer.

The government should have a serious re-think of this particular budgetary proposal — allegedly made on the basis of a so-called ‘research’ now under fire — gracefully accept the criticism and change it in the public interest, was the consensus when the Sunday Times contacted numerous people.

The slashing of beer prices will immediately pave the way for ‘gateway’ drinking which ultimately leads to disastrous consequences, with studies categorically showing that hard addictions will follow later on, be it alcohol, tobacco or drugs, the Sunday Times learns.

Arguments brought in favour of reducing prices are not based on scientific data and experts in this field have not been consulted before taking such a drastic decision, sources said, as others added that claims that Sri Lanka cannot be made a Saudi Arabia do not hold water. By raising taxes no one is taking away the right of the people to drink if they want to. But the government, when making these decisions, has a responsibility to take the health of the people into account.

Before taking up ‘gateway’ drinking, Dr. Palitha Abeykoon who has been promoting many public health issues, points out that using a survey — which has not been published in a scientific journal, not been peer-reviewed and probably has not got ethics approval — to bring about mainstream changes was “sad”. Although people can argue in different ways on this controversial issue, countries generally never-ever reduce the prices of any alcohol including beer.

Holding beer up for scrutiny, he says that the main “ingredient” in any spirits whether beer, hard liquor, wine or kassippu is alcohol or ethanol. While unlike in the west where 95% of the people drink every day, before, during or after a meal as it is the culture in those countries, the scenario in Sri Lanka is different. Around 75% of the people in Sri Lanka do not drink. As such, bringing down the price of beer could have a major adverse impact on this situation.

“With beer becoming very cheap, schoolchildren will be tempted to experiment with this alcohol which, in turn, as time goes on becomes the ‘gateway’ to harder alcohols and drugs,” he warns, pointing out that 15% of children and young people will get “hooked” thereafter. Even among people who are allegedly drinking hard liquor, not taking into account that this assumption came from non-scientific fictional data, the obvious solution is at worst to keep the tax on beer at least at the same rate or at best to increase the tax on hard liquor to dissuade drinking of hard liquor.

He gives three major pointers why the government should not reduce beer prices:

  •  Health costs – There is proven knowledge that alcohol is the cause of 36 killer diseases and not only cirrhosis, requiring medical treatment and hospitalization which makes a dent in the health budget. Alcohol is the second largest cause of oral cancer (tobacco is the first) and also gastro-intestinal cancer. Alcohol contributes to illness (morbidity) and early death (mortality).
  •  Economic costs — There is major loss of productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism (being at work but not really working) at workplaces due to alcoholism.
  •  Social costs – These are ‘unseen’ costs, with alcohol causing family breakdowns, loss of fathers, loss of employment and much more.

Debunking the argument that alcohol taxes bring in a lot of revenue to the government, Dr. Abeykoon quotes a study done by the World Health Organization (WHO), Sri Lanka’s National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) and Thailand’s Health Intervention and Technology Assessment Program (HITAP), a semi-autonomous research unit under the Public Health Ministry. It clearly points to the ‘total’ direct income from alcohol being Rs. 82 billion, while the actual losses in the form of health and productivity losses amount to a shocking Rs. 141 billion.

Adding his voice to these concerns, Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Jayamal de Silva who is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychiatry of the Sri Jayewardenepura University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, says that a taxation policy based on the strength of alcohol (beer having a lower tax and others such as whiskey and vodka with a higher alcohol content having a higher tax), would work in a society where consumption is high and a majority of the population takes alcohol, like in the west where both men and women drink. Then people may switch from hard liquor to beer.

“Sri Lanka, however, is different. Spot-surveys and WHO statistics on Sri Lanka have found that, culturally, a majority of women do not drink. It is only about 2-4% (4 in 100) who do drink alcohol and these are mainly a minor segment of women. In the case of men, about 35-40% drinks alcohol, while a large number abstain. As such, when considering both men and women, 75% abstain and only about 25% imbibe alcohol regularly,” he says.

Comparing the west with Sri Lanka, he is quick to point out that the culture there is that many people drink small amounts as part of their diet. But there are controls in place. Even in France where the alcohol per capita consumption is very high, the problems linked to alcohol are low. In Sri Lanka, though, those who drink do so in excess and if beer prices are reduced, there would be a large intake of beer, increasing consumption among the current beer-drinkers.

“Children and young adults will also take to beer drinking,” says Dr. de Silva, warning that it would create a ‘gateway’ to harder alcohol, tobacco and drugs and also addiction.

He expands why most people abstain – due to “cultural constraints” and “cost and availability”. When the cost and availability change, some of the people who are abstaining will shift to become drinkers and a reduction in the cost would inevitably make beer more accessible. The short-term effects would be accidents and domestic violence in the next three-four years and many serious illnesses in 10 years.

With a can of beer costing Rs. 100, schoolchildren who will be given pocket-money by their parents for a meal such as two buns which cost Rs. 100 or a packet of lunch which is Rs. 130 will be able to buy beer. It will not stop there – it will be one can of beer in the first week and when the tolerance level increases in about four weeks, it will be two cans, with the consumption rising to five cans and subsequently a switch to half-a-bottle of arrack, he says.

“With a slash in the price of beer, there will be initiation to alcohol for the young; those abstaining will move towards drinking; and finally a ‘gateway’ will be created for addiction to other substances such as hard liquor, tobacco and drugs,” warns Dr. de Silva.

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