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Unmasking false truths of Sri Lanka’s anti-alcohol lobby

2017-11-06 10:38:54
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The anti-alcohol lobby groups form powerful fronts across global markets and their hallowed cause for enhanced public policy on health and safety and combating abuse are recognized universally. In contrast to developed markets, Sri Lanka’s alcohol industry is plagued with the presence of an extensive illicit trade, which as per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2014 Global Report on Alcohol, constitutes 41 percent of our market.


Remarkably, Sri Lanka’s anti-alcohol lobby functions oblivious to this fact, despite the acknowledgement by the global governing body on health in terms of the WHO. In a recent media report, a senior spokesperson for a prominent local anti-alcohol lobby group stated, “There are no national figures available on illicit liquor sales or production.” He charged this was a mere “bogey”. 
A mere glance at published government data unveils the falsehood of Sri Lanka’s anti-alcohol lobby. As detailed in the graph, employing published statistics from the Excise Department and Police, Sri Lanka has a grave and critical problem with illicit alcohol. These official, published figures clearly state that close to 300 incidence of production and consumption of illicit alcohol are detected by authorities daily; that’s a staggering average of 12 every hour. How could anyone deny its existence – these facts and indictments filed by the Police and Excise Department in respect to 
illicit alcohol?


Furthermore, a research report published in the media by the Social Development Network points to illicit alcohol consumption amongst 45 percent of its respondents during an islandwide survey of 5,000 persons, which corroborates the figure published by the WHO on Sri Lanka. 


Network President Jeewa Siriwardena attributes low price and easy availability as primary driving factors for the prevalence of illicit, adding, “These hard truths are what we famously ignore; shun them as untruths not befitting our conceited cultural and religious fronts and it is our inability as leaders and as citizens to accept them and do what is right that will perpetuate this issue of alcoholism to incurable highs.” 


The article also pointed to high incidence of domestic brewing for commercial and consumption purposes and the involvement of women in the industry as per the feedback provided by over 5,000 families. 


The attempt by the anti-alcohol lobby is another example of lying by statistics or as in this case – proposing the lack of it. Paul Chase, a Director and commentator on licensing laws and alcohol policy in the UK, likens these anti-alcohol lobby tactics to the ‘Big Lie’ propaganda technique, as coined by Adolf Hitler. These tactics include never allowing the public to cool off through the provision of constant scare stories and remorseless anti-alcohol propaganda – demonising the industry, denying any attempts by the industry to promote responsible consumption, exclude the drinks industry from public policy formulation and more importantly “the deliberate misuse of statistics to inflate the problem”. 


What prevents the anti-alcohol lobby in Sri Lanka from accepting the real facts and figures and the very real problem posed by the illicit industry? In posing this question, whilst this tends to generalize opinion, it must be said that there can be organisations and individuals who are genuinely oblivious or unaware of these figures and pose legitimate concerns against alcohol abuse.


But it is not acceptable for large-scale mainstream lobby groups, institutions, NGOs and organisations – some of them with state sponsorship – to ignore these obvious truths. Lobby groups and NGOs are heavily dependent on foreign funds for existence. 


For their want to show progress and accrue further funds from sponsors, it becomes easier for groups to showcase actions against the very transparent legitimate trade. The illicit industry thrives with no opposition from the anti-alcohol lobby, as it is in effect a ‘dark market’ operated by criminal elements often with political patronage – elements that lobby groups and NGOs lack the courage and will to oppose. 


Last month, police raided a house in Kandana where perpetrators operated an illicit distillery under the guise of a garment factory, with over Rs.1 million worth of illegal spirits nabbed at the location. Earlier this year, Excise officials arrested persons for distilling illicit alcohol in a school canteen in Hingurakgoda. Every Grama Seva division in the island reportedly has six illicit liquor dens on average – including in Colombo. Why is the anti-alcohol lobby quiet on their prevalence? How audacious is it to wilfully and continuously turn a blind eye on a sector that is laying waste to the very cause it champions and shapes their very existence?


The anti-alcohol lobby in Sri Lanka – as is done globally – is funded by a number of temperance movements based in Europe and the US, the WHO and a number of organisations; some of which are affiliated to the UN and other private funds. It is ironic that some of these agencies that are privileged to advice the government on development issues and policy, do not seem to demand meaningful and practical action from its beneficiaries on combating illicit alcohol, which it admits – by way of the WHO report – is a critical issue that impacts the country. 


The agency adds that the informal market is most prevalent in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa and even acknowledges that the production of palm, fruit or grain-based alcohol products has been prevalent in these countries for centuries and is deeply rooted in some traditions. They even concede that locally produced informal products are significantly cheaper than the commercial produce due to stringent regulations. If so, then why are these double standards? ‘Reducing the public health impact of illicit and informal alcohol’ is a key pillar of several donor NGOs – it is about time that implementing agencies walked that talk.


What drives this ‘Big Lie’ and hypocrisy? Why must governments, the public and even benefactors tolerate this two-faced action by the anti-alcohol lobby? At no point is it suggested that the lobby must relent its pressure on the legal alcohol industry. Without doubt, they must continuously be pressured to enhance its efforts on reducing harm and promoting responsible consumption amongst consumers. Alongside that we must educate and encourage consumers of all ages on the ill-effects of alcohol abuse. But the lobby cannot continue to turn a blind eye on the prevalence and impacts of illicit alcohol in our society. 


At over 40 percent of recorded annual consumption and at a record rate of 12 detections every hour for five consecutive years, the illicit alcohol trade is a very real and damning issue that plagues our society. That is no bogey – that is hard fact. The social issues surrounding illicit alcohol production and consumption go far beyond health concerns and include grave criminal elements – factors that cannot be ignored in combating alcohol abuse. 


An efficient anti-alcohol lobby will work to provide regulators and policymakers with practical inputs to reduce alcohol-related harm and look to formulate an effective framework. This would also involve effective engagement with the legal industry. For instance, such process would help Sri Lanka entrench its position amongst countries that have an all-inclusive alcohol policy framework rather than one which only tends to marginalize the legal trade.


Just 45 percent of countries in the Southeast Asian region have effective policies and actions on illicit alcohol as opposed to 81 percent of countries in the European region. The lobby groups would do well to help governments design such constructive policy, rather than resort to actions to further undermine it. 


As alluded to before and as accepted by global agencies – there will never be a world free of alcohol. It is an integral part of cultures and human interaction. What must be done is promote its safe and responsible consumption and minimize every possible aspect of harm. Education and effective policy hold the key to a better future. A noisy minority in the form of the anti-alcohol lobby continues to defy and deny facts and figures for their vested benefit, embroiled in a campaign of doubt and denial from even within the public health establishment. Lying to school children is one thing but lying to adults and scientific evidence is quite another. 


(Lionel Gunatunga is a retired superintendent of government and private plantations with over 30 years of experience in the Central and Southern Provinces, engaged in plantation administration and operations. Gunatunga is now engaged in social and education development programmes amongst rural communities. He can be reached at lal.gunatunga@gmail.com)


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