Tourists least concerned about liquor availability Reducing the price of beer a blunder! A gateway to all other drugs
BY Dr. Samantha Kumara Kithalawaarachchi and Manjari Peiris
The Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention is the premier Sri Lankan interlocutor for evidence based policy measures and community based interventions to prevent and reduce harm that is caused by alcohol and other drugs. This institution directly functions under and is monitored by the President. This article and comments made in it are a response to the 2018 Budget proposal to reduce the taxes on beer by 40 per cent and permitting the sale of beer without licences at tourist guest houses.
This proposal is totally contradictory to the government's policy as envisaged by the Presidential Task Force for Alcohol and Drug Prevention, which functions directly under the President.
The Minister of Finance has claimed the following to justify this decision: 49 per cent or one in two alcohol users in Sri Lanka use Kassippu (moonshine or illicit liquor).
In other countries the majority of alcohol users use beer, unlike Sri Lanka where the majority use spirits and therefore that beer prices should be reduced.
Alcohol should be freely available to become a 'modern' country, a country which is not in the Stone Age (gal yugaya).
If we increase the price of spirits instead of decreasing the price of beer to move those using spirits to using beer, Sri Lanka will become like Saudi Arabia.
Taxation on alcohol should be based on the alcohol content of the beverage and therefore, the taxation on beer should be reduced.
The Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention conducted a survey this year, in collaboration with the Rajarata University to ascertain the preferences of tourists visiting Sri Lanka and their attitude towards alcohol policies in the country.
According to recent Central Bank reports, tourism revenue is in third place, bypassing the traditional exports, and second only to remittances from migrant workers and the garment industry. In other words, the official tourist receipts for 2016 were estimated to be Rs 512,293 million as compared to Rs 405,492 million in 2015 which shows an increase of 26 per cent.
According to the statistics released by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, the numbers have increased up to 2,050,832 in 2016. There is a 14 per cent increase compared to the 2015 figures. Thus it is clear that tourism plays an important role as one of the core sources of foreign exchange earners in the economy of Sri Lanka and this growth should be maintained for national development.
There were many proposals to promote Sri Lanka as an attractive place for tourists such as by way of the development of infrastructure, the facilities and the services available, among others.
Another proposal suggested that the access to alcoholic drinks for tourists should be increased by reducing the tax as well as access points. This proposal highlighted that the majority of tourists are experiencing difficulties with no access to alcohol; hence, the country may lose tourists in the years to come. This was mere speculation without evidence based information.
Hence, this study was conducted to collect firsthand evidence from tourists themselves about their preferences and the idea behind visiting Sri Lanka. Their perception for potential development and improvements to be done for tourism in Sri Lanka too was obtained.
The geographical area covered by this study was Anuradhapura, Kandy, Trincomalee, Batticaloa including Pasikuda, Negombo, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Galle and Colombo.
The tourists for the survey were randomly selected, from hotels, restaurants and other places of interest. Prior to asking questions, they were given a brief description of the nature of the survey.
The survey participants numbering 302 of both sexes, between the ages 18 - 78 years belonging to 38 countries among who were tourists from Britain, Netherlands, Australia, France, China, Russia, Poland, Holland, Thailand, Belgium, USA, among others were included in this study.
On inquiry, nearly 90 per cent of tourists are mostly attracted to the natural beauty, the wildlife, the beaches and visiting the ancient cities. Also, some have enjoyed a variety of Sri Lankan spicy foods. But the number who claimed that they enjoyed having alcoholic beverages was very low.
According to them, the main problem that they had encountered was mentioned as traffic and poor public transport. Additionally, they were very much concerned about diseases and issues related to their hygiene and cleanliness.
The number that complained about access to alcohol was less than 3 per cent, but 12 per cent reported on issues such as harassment by street vendors, problems with guides and three wheel drivers and the lack of facilities to purchase tickets as well as difficulty in obtaining correct information to visit places due to communication problems and about the unavailability of basic facilities such as toilets.
More than 88 per cent of tourists were optimistic about their next visit to Sri Lanka, the rest were not interested. Those who were optimistic of their next visit stated that they were attracted by the natural beauty, the beaches, the wildlife, the history and the culture of the country. A few were attracted by Sri Lankan cuisine.
More participants suggested developing the roads and the transport facilities and a very few people wanted their safety to be ensured and for hotel accommodation to be improved. Only 7 per cent suggested access to alcohol.
Ban on public smoking
When inquired about their opinion on the tobacco and alcohol policies in Sri Lanka, particularly the banning of public smoking and drinking, more than 90 per cent of them approved it.
Based on the findings of this survey, it is quite clear that tourists who visit Sri Lanka do not consider alcohol or the availability of alcohol as a cause for their visits.
The Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention is also working very closely with the Police and the Divisional Secretariats of the entire country with regard to monitoring the use of Kassippu and we get records of them every three months. According to these observations, it is very clear that the use of Kassippu has significantly come down.
No person consuming Kassippu would start drinking beer and by increasing the availability of alcohol for tourists and simplifying the liquor licence system would only cause local alcohol consumption to go up. Beer is the gateway to other hard drugs. Reduction in the price of beer will only result in the increase in the production and the consumption of the product. It will not reduce the consumption of hard liquor and the illicit brew Kassippu, as people of different ages and social strata consume different brews.
Increased alcohol consumption is a burden on a country, as the government has to end up spending more than the revenue it collected, by way of taxes on alcohol on treating the people afflicted with alcohol related diseases.
Introducing as a measure to cut down the consumption of hard liquor and to reduce the production of illicit brew such as Kassippu, the Minister of Finance in 1996, reduced the price of beer considerably. The result of this short sighted policy to reduce price of beer was that the consumption of beer increased by 52.3 per cent over the next 10 years during which time the population increase was only 13.8 per cent. Meanwhile, the consumption of arrack also rose and the Kassippu production too increased. It encouraged young people to drink more beer of higher concentration due to the low cost. The total consumption of beer in 2015 was 126 million litres.
The policymakers of this country should know that alcohol consumption is a major health and social problem in Sri Lanka.
The extent of the damage is reflected in the rising incidence of hospital admissions due to alcohol related diseases, rising incidence of road traffic accidents, violence and homicide, the rising incidence of sexual abuse and violence against women and children, and the deterioration of moral and spiritual values in society. The government should give priority and more consideration to do the right thing that is to increase the taxes on alcohol and also reduce its availability.
(Dr. Kithalawaarchchi is the Director of the Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention)
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