It seems that as a nation we are losing track of what a government should do. We need to ask the simple question, “What are the prime responsibilities of a government?” Improving the quality of life of those in need and reducing financial and other forms of poverty come to mind. So is preventing its people becoming ill and dying prematurely, protecting vulnerable women and children from abuse and violence. Ensuring physical protection, especially on roads and other public places and protecting its citizens from vested interests of the corporate world should also be in such a list.
How a government handles the production, sale and use of alcohol is a reflection of its attention given to these issues. Sri Lankans should therefore take serious note of government policies on alcohol. With the budget approaching, vested corporate interests of all hues would be working round the clock to ensure that their profit is maximized, regardless of whether it damages the government coffers, people’s pockets, or the quality of life.
There are several hackneyed themes on alcohol that surface during this period, almost every year. These are that illegal alcohol use is high, and therefore, the prices of the legal products should be reduced and the prices of so-called “softer” alcohol should be reduced to wean people from “stronger” alcohol.
What is conveniently forgotten is that alcohol use is a minority habit in this country. Government statistics and publications from the World Health Organization shows this. For example, a WHO / Ministry of Health Study published last year showed that around 35% males and a small proportion of adult females used alcohol, which means that more than 75% of the adult population do not use legal or illegal alcohol in Sri Lanka. This statistic may not be believed by those who are deceived by the continual propaganda of the alcohol industry. Previous studies too show similar results. Include the children, and the non-alcohol using population becomes much larger. Delusions and politics may go hand in hand but this is one delusion politicians can come out of, just by looking around.
Illegal alcohol, as for all other illegal activities should be dealt with through the strict enforcement of the law. It is hilarious that anyone expects people to believe that illegal activities can be reduced by price competition. Besides, how many beer users will switch to illicit alcohol if the beer price is high? There is also no basis for the statistics disgorged on illicit alcohol.
A landmark study undertaken by the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol, Sri Lanka Medical Association and the World Health organization established that the economic costs of alcohol in Sri Lanka amounted to more than Rs.140 billion in 2015. This is for a single year. This cost keeps occurring year after year. To put things in perspective, the Southern Highway cost around Rs.100 billion at exchange rates prevalent in 2015. How many more highways could we have built?
Although comprehensive in its nature, this study did not take into account the psycho-social costs of alcohol use. Can one put an economic cost of the uncomprehending horror of an abused child, unfathomable sorrow of a mother whose child is killed by an alcohol associated accident, the dark, dank frightening world of a father suffering from alcohol induced depression, or the overbearing sense of loss of a child who has lost his or her father due to an alcohol related suicide?
So, in a country where less than 25% of all adults consume alcohol, what should the priorities be? First, protecting those not consuming alcohol. This entails protecting them from policies and forces that compel or attract them to start consuming alcohol, and protecting them from harms from alcohol consumed by others. The second priority should be providing the necessary support for those consuming alcohol to by reduce and give up. Both these objectives cannot be met reducing the prices of any type of alcohol.
Sri Lanka has one of the most practical and scientifically sound alcohol policies in the world. It was approved in 2015, by the current Cabinet of Ministers. It takes into account the factors we have discussed. Blindly implementing polices of countries where the vast majority of the adult population consume alcohol will not help this country.