By Lionel Gunatunga
A recent statement from Labour Minister John Seneviratne elicited much chatter amongst the social circles. He espoused that arrack should be made cheaper to dissuade people, especially the estate sector workers from consuming harmful illicit alcohols.
“This is less harmful. Kassippu (illicit) is a major issue. Nobody is paying attention to it. The estate workers drink alcohol anyhow. If the legal brands are expensive, they will drink illicit ones. Both men and women have taken to alcoholism. We should stop this somehow,” he is reported to have told a meeting in Ratnapura.
The minister hit the nail on the head with his comments and deserves commendation for stating the facts as it is. Because for too long have our politicians and so-called anti-alcohol pressure groups hid from addressing and accepting the real scourge of illicit alcohol in this country, driving a meaningless and short-sighted exorbitant pricing policy on safer legitimate products, transforming this country into a nation of drunkards.
Let’s face the truth. Sri Lankans are binge drinkers; it is part of their lifestyle, culture and social behaviour and we cannot detach the public from it despite the rhetoric of politicians and religious agitation. The sooner we accept that, easier it is to tackle the problem. Therefore, what governments and focus groups must do is to encourage and move consumers towards a much safer drinking culture and for decades all we have done in Sri Lanka is quite the opposite.
Successive governments have chosen to turn a blind eye on illicit consumption and have chosen to tax the legal industry claiming it’s winning a war against alcoholism, whilst all it has really done is making the problem much worse. On the one hand, legal products are far too expensive, with a litre bottle of arrack costing an average Rs.1,200, whilst a bottle of kasippu will retail at an average of just Rs.700 and Rs.50 a cup. Surely, an estate worker would prefer the cheaper option, which also delivers more potent, but toxic, kick-per-buck.
On the other hand, the taxation policy has been short-sighted with no science or concrete methodology rendering softer less harmful products such as beer and wine more expensive that spirits. For example, tax on spirits rose 25 percent in 2015 whilst tax on mild and strong beers rose 27 percent and 70 percent, respectively. This meaningless practice has continued for years, rendering Sri Lanka probably the only country in the world where a safer softer alcohol is far more expensive than spirits.
Thus, as the labour minister very rightly said, what we have is a problem of pricing and if we choose to be prudent, we can design a long-term solution to the problem. The government and its policy think tank must consider several factors in this effort. Pricing is the number one element. It must be representative of alcohol content and it must be affordable – to dissuade people from harmful spirits.
Secondly, it must look at distribution. If there are four times more illicit alcohol dens in a province than there are registered sales outlets then that poses a problem. Plus, in the estate sector, rural and even suburban areas, illicit and home brewers even run delivery services via three-wheelers, motorcycles and vans. It is a thriving very well-organised trade. Thirdly, enforcement. Are our police and excise officials doing enough, have they been empowered with the right information and skills?
I say so because of the rise of toddy in recent times. Bottled toddy consumption is rampant in the estate sector and figures suggest that over 50 percent of toddy sales now come in bottled form. Toddy is no longer the cottage industry it used to be, with over nine million reported litres of production annually. But this is only the tip of the iceberg as a massive volume of toddy is produced and consumed outside what is reported resulting once again in significant losses to government.
What’s more, the toddy that is produced nowadays in massive volumes is not the traditional product we are used to. It consists of a chemical component, which is harmful to human health. Once again, these harmful toddy products are available freely even at registered outlets as the authorities are both ill-informed and turns a blind eye on these instruments.
Whilst arrack is a safer option to kasippu and other illicit brews, pricing and policy must also consider the exponential growth of the 180ml arrack flasks. As per industry information, two years ago manufacturers sold three million units of the 180ml flask during a month, whilst in 2016 this figure surpassed a staggering nine million a month.
Arrack is by far a safer alternate to illicit but as alluded before what we need to do is move people towards safer softer alcohol and once again this is something that can only be achieved through pragmatic policy and education. The sight of tipplers gulping down flask after flask of arrack outside wayside bars is a practice we might slowly but surely remove from our alcohol culture. We need to adopt a planned step-by-step approach towards implementing a safe and soft alcohol culture in the country and the policymakers hold the key for our future generations.
The growth, consumption and harms caused by spirits and illicit alcohol are very visible in the estate sector. Its impacts are far reaching on family life, social behaviour and human health. These elements and ground realities need to be considered by the policymakers when designing prudent and sustainable policy that will benefit all Sri Lankans. The minister’s observations – albeit late – are accurate and we hope that this would be the start of a process to take a more realistic view towards Sri Lanka’s alcohol policy. A drunken nation is not what we want for Sri Lanka.
(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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)