Monday, October 3 was World Temperance Day and it is an appropriate time for us to reflect deeply on Sri Lanka’s battle against alcohol consumption. Temperance also means moderation or self restraint especially in eating and drinking.
Briefly taking up the second aspect, there is a need for us to re-commit ourselves to the hallowed precepts of a simple and humble lifestyle or Alpechchathavaya which means learning to be content with basic needs in terms of food. With millions of Sri Lankans still struggling to find their basic needs and a large number living below the poverty line we still see the rich and ruling elite or even others indulging in luxuries and extravagance, sometimes spending more than Rs.5,000 for a five-star meal. Millions of others including schoolchildren have become addicted to imported junk food or processed rubbish.
The National Government this year launched a three-year programme for Sri Lanka to grow its own food – grains, vegetables and fruits -- in our own country so that Sri Lankans could be healthier, wealthier, wiser and more productive in terms of our contribution to the sustainable, all inclusive and eco-friendly development of our country.
By gradually stopping the import of expensive and sometimes toxic agrochemicals, the Government also hopes to make Sri Lanka a ‘vasa visa nethi’ country. As for nutrition we should not follow the Western models where for instance in the United States some forty per cent of the people are known to be suffering from obesity. Medical science has shown that being excessively overweight, especially after the age of forty, could lead to various ailments including heart problems. A simple diet of gram, cowpea or green gram for breakfast, less rice and lots of vegetables for lunch and a simple dinner made of substances such as ‘rulang’ or ‘ulundu’ are recommended by people-friendly nutritionists. This gives us lots of good food for thought in this Temperance Week.
As for alcohol consumption, some disturbing facts and figures are given in today’s Daily Mirror page 14 article by Dr. Anula Wijesundere, Consultant Physician and Vice President of the Temperance Association of Sri Lanka. According to her, alcohol dependence is a major health and social problem in Sri Lanka though few social and medical analysts speak out against this crisis which is destroying thousands of people in the prime of their lives. She warns that heavy drinking for a long time could lead to what is called the “Alcohol Dependence Syndrome”, the main symptoms of which are deterioration of physical and mental health, inter-personal relationships, moral and social standards and financial problems.
Dr. Wijesundere points out that 2,560 years ago, Gauthama the Buddha realized the evils of alcohol and advised the people to abstain from it. The Buddha showed 48 evil effects of alcohol but unfortunately many Buddhists appear to ignore his guidance.
According to World Health Organization (WHO) global figures for 2014, the per capita consumption of alcohol is 3.7 litres for both sexes and 7.3 litres for males only. These figures account for the use of legal or recorded alcohol only but it is well known that in Sri Lanka more than 55% of alcohol consumed by males is unrecorded or illicit alcohol or ‘Kassippu’. So the real figure is a staggering 8.9 litres, Dr. Wijesundere reveals. The total per capita consumption of alcohol among males in Sri Lanka amounts to 16.2 litres -- the highest among South Asian countries.
A Health Ministry survey last year showed that 34.8 % of Sri Lankan males consumed alcohol. However, the National Alcohol and Tobacco Authority (NATA) says that according to a survey this year, some 40% of Sri Lankans consume alcohol. Fortunately, the prevalence among Sri Lankan females is only 0.5%, and mostly involves the upcountry tea estate workers.
Dr. Wijesundere says that for the battle against the bottle to be won stakeholders should coordinate the operation. They include NATA, the Presidential Task Force, the Customs and the Excise Departments, the Police, religious dignitaries, voluntary societies, NGOs, medical & social support groups and other