The country became one big funeral on the eve of the traditional New Year. Grown up men were crying like babes. They were beating their hairy chests and pulling their greying hair. They were weeping at their homes, in their offices and on the streets. Not even the impressive victory Mahela and the boys scored in the West Indies against the Kiwis could cheer them up. What a heart rending spectacle! Nay, there was no tsunami! Nor was there any tragic road mishap! Then, what was the cause of their grief?
Liquor outlets had been closed without adequate notice! Many had failed to secure that elixir of life in sufficient measure. Those who had the foresight had stocked enough spirit to avoid the usual last minute rush and attendant disappointment. Winding queues could be seen near liquor shops with `hives` of dipsomaniacs clinging to the counters of squalid liquor shops. Even those macho types who wouldn`t condescend to oblige a request from their mothers or wives to make a short trip to fetch a bottle of coconut oil, had no difficulty in spending hours in queues for liquor!
Adding insult to injury, President Mahinda Rajapakse, in his New Year message, appealed for a liquor free national festival. Those who suffered most due to the drunkenness of men, he said, were their wives and children. How true! But, we don`t think those frustrated tipplers took kindly to his appeal. They were gnashing their teeth and the President was lucky that he appeared on TV. Else, they would have seized the presidential killjoy by the saataka and made mince meat of him!
Our intention is not to pontificate to the drinking public about the virtues of teetotalism. Nor do we intend to either praise or censure the President for his appeal. Instead, we attempt a sober reflection on the hypocrisy of the state as regards its efforts to force moral values on the masses while engaging in activities that militate against its objective.
Governments mount the moral high horse from time to time, as was evident from the Presidential appeal for abstinence (from liquor), while being the main beneficiaries of the very vices that they campaign against. It is at the expense of the lungs and the livers of the public that governments try to bridge yawning budget deficits through tobacco and liquor taxes.
What will happen if the people, by any chance, all of a sudden decide to heed politicians` advice and stop smoking and drinking? In such an eventuality the political humbugs will find themselves on a gum tree with a sharp drop in the government revenue. Out of sheer desperation, they might even seriously consider lifting the ban on liquor and tobacco advertising in a bid to get the public to resume drinking and smoking! So, when a government takes upon itself a campaign against smoking and drinking, it is behaving like an arms dealer advocating a peaceful resolution of a conflict or, to put it bluntly, a pimp campaigning against prostitution! It is nothing but plain hypocrisy.
The government`s much-publicized efforts to reduce alcohol and tobacco addiction could be likened, as Mahatma Gandhi said, to fueling the flames underneath a boiling cauldron (cause) while trying to stop the flow of steam (effect) with a lid. The government may have sought to reduce the demand for liquor and tobacco through its advertising bans but it is only wishful thinking that such measures will yield the desired results. Narcotics, the government big brains behind those bans should realize, are never advertised. Nor are they openly sold. But, the demand for them is ever on the increase! Let it be added immediately that we don`t oppose the bans in question, lest out comment should be misconstrued.
What needs to be done urgently is to find ways and means of reducing the demand for intoxicants, without seeking shortcuts through manipulation of the supply. When the supply is artificially reduced with the demand remaining high, the inevitable outcome is the creation of a black market. Illicit hooch dens must have had roaring business during the past few days despite all the raids conducted by the Excise Department. Given the plethora of shebeens and illicit distilleries throughout the country, the Excise Department and the police have their work cut out. On the other hand, most rotgut joints enjoy political patronage. Some of them display the mugs of their political patrons for everybody to see! Remember once a minister had the audacity to claim that kasippu was a cottage industry in the North-western Province and therefore had to be taken for granted. With powerful politicians in the pocket of bootleggers, it is not possible to stem the flow of illicit liquor into the market.
The high incidence of alcoholism is a national problem which defies piecemeal remedies. It is a sad reflection on parents, the clergy, teachers, rulers and opinion leaders. Sadly, even the clergy seem to have palmed off their duty by the people to politicians, as manifest in their efforts to deal with alcoholism and tobacco addiction through bans.
The success of a campaign against liquor and tobacco addiction hinges on our ability to chip away at the demand for those products. Sadly, the objective of the on-doing campaign is far from that.