Ending the moonshine industry | Daily News

Ending the moonshine industry

The Excise Department has earned a record revenue of nearly Rs.140 billion last year, despite the repeated lockdowns. This is no doubt a massive contribution to the economy under the present dire circumstances. The pent-up demand from the imbibers must have been one of the main reasons for the increased revenue.

In the wake of this record performance, the Excise Department has decided to affix a new security label with extra tamper-proof features to all bottles of locally produced liquor and to legally imported (duty paid and duty free) foreign liquor. There have been reports of tampering with the seals and stoppers of bottles by some vendors, mainly the so-called wine stores. Some of them are known to adulterate the liquor with inferior concoctions. This is in fact why many consumers patronise supermarket liquor sections, which do not engage in such shady practices.

Although there has been a drastic drop in tobacco consumption, a similar trend has not been witnessed in terms of alcohol consumption. There have been many attempts to veer people away from consuming alcohol over the years, but these have not been very successful. Like everything else in life, alcohol should be consumed in moderation, if at all. Unfortunately, some people do not know the limits. Alcohol addiction has become a social and health problem due to this situation.

Other than hospital treatment in the last stage of liver failure, Sri Lanka does not have any mechanisms for the rehabilitation of alcohol addicts like the Alcoholics Anonymous help groups in other countries. It is time to evolve a mechanism aimed at rehabilitating alcoholics, similar to the existing programmes for narcotics addicts.

Legally available alcohol has perhaps been unfairly blamed for alcoholism among the population. Even though some people could indeed be addicted to shop-bought alcoholic beverages, a much greater proportion of the damage is caused by illicit alcohol or moonshine a.k.a. kasippu, which is distilled practically everywhere in the country. It is rather well-known that this industry thrives with the tacit support of local-level politicians, with the law enforcement turning a blind eye. The Police sometimes raid these illicit breweries, only for them to begin operations a month or so later with the intervention of local political forces.

This rotgut is the primary cause of the large number of hospitalisations caused by alcohol addiction. Worse, these moonshine brewers do not pay a red cent to the Government in taxes. The Government loses again when kasippu drinkers are treated at hospitals, as public funds are used for such treatment. Several solutions have been proposed to deal with this problem. One solution, discussed even in Parliament, is the legalization of the kasippu industry with a proper sales and tax structure. Proponents of this proposal point out that many of today’s legal drinks, such as whisky, began as illicit brews that were later legalized. This might not be an option given the country’s socio-cultural and religious background.

Another school of thought is that the illicit breweries should be wiped out entirely, with those engaged in this harmful industry trained in other, more useful vocations. Again, these illicit breweries are so entrenched throughout the country that it will be virtually impossible to physically destroy them altogether. They are simply likely to pop up again in the same place or somewhere else.

But there is a far simpler solution. Taxes and duties on legal liquor are very high in Sri Lanka and Governments keep on increasing them every few months as an easy means of raising additional revenue. But the unseen damage to public health – as well as to economic health – is far greater, as people who are unable to afford the legal drinks are driven to consume the moonshine. The result is that the Government loses revenue from legal alcohol sales while also having to spend for the treatment of moonshine addicts.

Some time ago under a different administration, there was a Budget proposal to reduce taxes on wine and beer and a few other light alcoholic drinks with an ABV (Alcohol By Volume) of less than 15 per cent. The idea was to ‘convert’ hard liquor drinkers to beer and wine and hence reduce the burden on the health system too.

Ultimately, this had no effect as hard liquor drinkers generally do not switch over to lower-ABV drinks. Thus the only solution is to lower the taxes and duties on hard alcohol so that more drinkers will be able to afford them. The Government might not be able to do this immediately given the present economic conditions, but it must contemplate this move for the future. This would automatically deal a crippling blow to the illicit liquor industry that has impacted on the nation’s health in more ways than one.

All Governments since Independence have blown hot and cold vis-à-vis the country’s liquor policy. There have been only half-hearted attempts to portray the evils of alcohol, knowing its contribution to the coffers. It is now time to formulate a rational national liquor policy that balances health and monetary concerns whilst seeking an end to the moonshine industry.

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