Binge drinking among youth Alcoholism hits back at eradication

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By 2017-04-17

By Isurinie Mallawaarachchi

Despite a strong nationwide emphasis in Sri Lankan society on eradicating tobacco and alcohol consumption, citing medical and even religious reasons, the consumption continues unabated. We continue to hear about binge drinking even by students. The latest development in this connection is a proposal set before Cabinet to decrease the distance between taverns and schools or religious institutions to at least 100 metres.

Reports said that this recommendation was made by the Ministry of Finance. Although this recommendation did not receive Cabinet approval, it is a reflection of official policy stances related to the consumption of tobacco and alcohol in Sri Lanka. In the light of this development, take a look at the current level of alcohol consumption in the country.

According to the latest survey of the Alcohol and Drugs Information Centre (ADIC) launched in 2015, 37.9% of the participants were current users of alcohol while the percentage for tobacco was 35.8%. The term 'current user' denotes persons who consumed alcohol within the month prior to the survey. A spokesman for ADIC told Ceylon Today that by the end of 2016 there had been a slight increase in the number that consumed alcohol. Notably, persons in the age group 25 to 30 years made up the majority of consumers of alcohol and tobacco products. A striking factor that these statistics reveal is that more than 55% of alcohol and tobacco users had taken to the habit between ages of 16 to 20 years. It might hence appear that addictions catch on at the very dawn of their youth, though the attendant health risks are frequently highlighted in the traditional media as well as via social media platforms.

The Chairperson of the National Alcohol and Tobacco Authority (NATA), Dr. Palitha Abeykoon stated that an increasing number of youngsters tend to use light alcoholic beverages such as beer. He suggested a progressively higher tax system as a deterrent, based on the alcoholic content of the beverage. This is based on the rationale that young consumers can get used to beer, which is considerably cheaper than stronger alcoholic drinks to which they eventually graduate.

This emphasis on taxation highlighted by Dr. Abeykoon ought to be considered because it could be an effective long-term solution to the high percentages of young alcohol consumers.

President Maithripala Sirisena launched a National Policy for the Control of Tobacco and Alcohol consumption last year. Although certain countries have policies pertaining to the control of the use of tobacco, this is the first time that Sri Lanka has had a national policy to control both tobacco and alcohol consumption. These policies contain various measures to reduce the availability of alcohol as well as some controls on the trade and investment policies relating to the alcohol industry, to ensure that it is controlled by a few checks and balances.

A significant factor in this study is that alcohol consumption in the country is limited to a considerably lower percentage of the overall population.

According to Dr. Abeykoon, nearly 70% of the people in the country are non-drinkers. However, the significant factor in a lower percentage ( 30 %) consuming alcohol was the fact that they are extremely heavy drinkers.

The per capita consumption of liquor in the country is similar to that in any Western country that has a higher percentage of consumers. A single consumer in Sri Lanka drinks 3.5 litres of alcohol a year. Although around 70% of the population does not drink, the amount of alcohol consumed by each drinker is four times greater than an average Western drinker. In essence, a small number of people drink an enormous amount and when we connect it to the percentages relating to the age groups of the consumers, the results may not be impressive.

In light of the recently rejected proposal to Cabinet, the Leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, Ven. Hadigalle Wimalasara Thera told Ceylon Today that they are "saddened by the very thought of this recommendation" and expressed satisfaction that it was rejected. Commenting on the socio-cultural repercussions of the excessive use of alcohol, the thera said that the consumption of alcohol has become a primary cause of families being reduced to poverty. There is enough evidence to show that alcohol causes various conflicts in families, oppression of women and children and similar problems, he added. He recalled that Ven. Omalpe Sobhita Thera submitted a Bill in Parliament seeking the prevention of alcohol and tobacco consumption.

Ven. Sobhita had said that in a context within which the President has vowed to eradicate alcohol and tobacco from the country, if there are plans by the Cabinet to weaken the laws related to consuming, selling or buying alcohol, it is a serious betrayal of the people. Stressing that the laws related to the trade in alcohol ought to be tightened, the Ven. Thera added that a considerable distance has to be maintained between taverns and educational institutions.

Although an effort was made to push through the proposal to slacken the laws related to alcohol consumption, it was not surprising that the proposal was rejected. This was in fact a statement against alcohol consumption.

Given the unhealthy quantum of alcohol that a low percentage consumes, the need for community-based awareness and anti- consumption programmes need to be increased at school level. An effective taxation system such as that proposed by Dr. Abeykoon and the effective implementation of national policies can play a major role in this regard. However, it is clear that the relaxation of laws will by no means pave the way to a solution to the problem.

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