Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - EDITORIAL -

Fi­nance Min­is­ter Man­gala Sa­ma­raweera has opened a Pan­dora’s Box, while pre­sent­ing the bud­get for 2018, by say­ing that beer is health­ier than sweet­ened soft drinks. It was ob­vi­ous that he was jus­ti­fy­ing his bud­get pro­posal to re­duce beer prices by way of a duty re­duc­tion. How­ever, his re­mark has drawn flack from health-re­lated or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­ter­est­ingly not from any re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions.

News­pa­pers had quoted Dr. Ruk­shan Bel­lana of the Gov­ern­ment Med­i­cal Of­fi­cers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (GMOA) as ob­serv­ing the com­par­i­son of beer and sweet­ened soft drinks by the Fi­nance Min­is­ter as a shame­ful state­ment. Mean­while, Dr. Prasad Kat­u­landa of the Di­a­betes As­so­ci­a­tion too had ex­pressed his dis­agree­ment with the re­mark made by Min­is­ter Sa­ma­raweera.

It is a well-known fact that Man­gala Sa­ma­raweera de­spite his switch­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties is a prin­ci­pled man in so­cial is­sues, though we may not agree with some of his views on those is­sues. Since the early nineties, he has been out­spo­ken on many mat­ters such as liquor con­sump­tion, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, power de­vo­lu­tion, peace build­ing and re­li­gious free­dom. He dares to run into con­tro­ver­sies what­ever the con­se­quences might be and al­ways stands for what he has said and done. He stuck to his poli­cies on so­cial is­sues even though he at times changed his po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions.

How­ever, it is un­for­tu­nate that on this oc­ca­sion he has al­legedly pro­moted and en­cour­aged beer con­sump­tion through his bud­get pro­posal and his com­ments on it.

He was not to­tally wrong. The sweet­ened soft drinks and many other sweet­ened foods af­fect the health of the peo­ple. The grow­ing num­ber of di­a­betes pa­tients even among chil­dren at­tests to it. But one should not ig­nore the harm done to one’s health by al­co­hol just be­cause sweet­ened foods could af­fect it. The Wikipedia states that, “The main ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in beer is al­co­hol, and there­fore the health ef­fects of al­co­hol ap­ply to beer.” There­fore one can­not say that harm done by one means is bet­ter than that done by the other.

Min­is­ter Sa­ma­rawera dur­ing a post-bud­get me­dia brief­ing at the Par­lia­ment com­plex had said that a re­cent sur­vey con­ducted by the Univer­sity of Colombo had proven that 49 per cent of al­co­hol con­sumers were ad­dicted to “kasippu”. “There­fore, we should res­cue the peo­ple, es­pe­cially our youth, from il­licit liquor such as kasippu,” he had said.

How­ever, as Min­is­ter Champika Ranawaka has pointed out, “kasippu” con­sump­tion would not go down just be­cause of re­duc­ing the prices of beer. Price re­duc­tion of beer would cre­ate an­other group who would start liquor con­sump­tion with beer, Ranawaka had ar­gued. He was cor­rect as beer can­not com­pete with kasippu in ru­ral ar­eas due to the lat­ter’s easy ac­ces­si­bil­ity and com­par­a­tively high af­ford­abil­ity.

Med­i­cal of­fi­cers rep­re­sent­ing the Al­co­hol and The Al­co­hol and Drug In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre (ADIC) and the Sri Lanka Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion (SLMA) re­cently pointed out that only 10 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion con­sumes il­licit al­co­hol, while only 20 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion use any kind of al­co­hol, and there­fore the gov­ern­ment should pay its at­ten­tion to pro­tect the 80 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion who are non-con­sumers, from ad­dic­tion to al­co­hol. The Al­co­hol in­dus­try tries to ex­pand its cus­tomer base, tar­get­ing the 80 per­cent ma­jor­ity of the non-user pop­u­la­tion to drag them in by keep­ing ar­rack and beer at low prices, they had fur­ther pointed out. Al­co­hol and To­bacco Con­trol Ex­pert Com­mit­tee mem­ber in the SLMA Su­jeewa Ranaweera had said that in year 2016, the eco­nomic harm done by al­co­hol is around Rs. 141 bil­lion.

Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena had said sev­eral times that he was pre­pared to ban liquor and to­bacco con­sump­tion in the coun­try but he would not do so, lest the liquor and to­bacco con­sumers top­ple the gov­ern­ment. Whether his com­ment cor­re­sponds with the afore­men­tioned sta­tis­tics, one should ques­tion the gov­ern­ment in turn if the Fi­nance Min­is­ter then wants to strengthen the hands of those liquor con­sumers who have the regime chang­ing power.

There is a de­bate go­ing on in the coun­try about the fore­most place given to Bud­dhism in the Con­sti­tu­tion. It is in­ter­est­ing to know the stand taken by those who stead­fastly stand for the present place given to Bud­dhism, on the en­cour­age­ment given by the gov­ern­ment to con­sume more and more beer, as they main­tain a deaf­en­ing si­lence.

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