Alcohol marketing ban to be relaxed?

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar

Sri Lanka’s alcohol manufacturers have made a collective request from the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) to relax their regulations pertaining to advertising, The Sunday Morning Business learns.

The request has been made to enable alcohol manufacturers to promote the recycling of used liquor bottles by displaying awareness posters/banners at public places. This comes following a proposal made by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) to ban quarter arrack bottles, which if implemented would severely impact alcohol manufacturers’ profitability.

Since the manufacturers expressed their concerns about the proposed ban, authorities have requested the manufacturers to come up with alternative proposals and this request is one of those alternatives.

Manufacturers are planning to display posters/banners raising awareness amongst their consumers on how to recycle quarter arrack bottles after consumption, as environmental hazards caused by disposing of these bottles was the main concern of the CEA. The posters/banners would educate the consumers to handover the empty bottles to the nearest wine store, which would in turn hand it over to a recycling company.

However, the NATA Act does not permit alcohol manufacturers to conduct any sort of advertising or even awareness campaigns, and this has prompted the request for the relaxation of the NATA Act.

NATA Act of No. 27 of 2006 states: “A person shall not publish or cause to be published, or authorise the publication of, a tobacco advertisement or an alcohol advertisement.”

Furthermore, it does not permit to display a trademark or brand name of a tobacco product or alcohol on such tobacco product or alcohol product or on any package containing such tobacco product or alcohol product. It also prohibits displaying, inside a place where tobacco products or alcohol product are available for sale to the public, a notice of the prescribed dimensions, identifying the tobacco products or alcohol product that are available for sale in that place and indicating their respective prices.

In addition to this, it rules out “to transmit or broadcast, to Sri Lanka from outside Sri Lanka a tobacco advertisement or alcohol advertisement or any television programme or radio programme containing a tobacco advertisement or alcohol advertisement, unless such transmission or broadcast, as the case may be, is intended to be seen or heard, as the case may be, only or mainly by viewers or listeners, as the case may be, in Sri Lanka.”

According to the Department of Excise, the request is with the NATA at the moment and they are yet to provide their response. All our attempts to reach NATA Chairman Dr. Samadhi Rajapaksa for a comment proved futile.

Nevertheless, Deputy Excise Commissioner Kapila Kumarasinghe told The Sunday Morning Business that if the NATA Act does not provide leeway to raise awareness on quarter bottle recycling through public banners and posters, the Department of Excise would raise awareness on behalf of the manufacturers.

“The Act does not permit manufacturers to display their branding. But we are permitted to raise awareness or advertise. So we might raise awareness amongst consumers on recycling in case the NATA Act refuses to let them do it,” Kumarasinghe stated.

On a further note, he added that the destruction that would be caused to the environment due to the inability to promote recycling would be much greater than the consequences of relaxing alcohol promotion regulations.

This request is also necessitated by the option given to the industry by the authorities to charge Rs. 50 as a refundable deposit for every quarter bottle purchased. This Rs. 50 would be returned to the consumer when the empty bottle is returned to the seller.

Nevertheless, sources informed us that alcohol manufacturers are not in favour of this option, as quarter bottles are bought almost entirely by daily drinkers and an increase of Rs. 50 would put the quarter bottle beyond consumers’ reach.

“The NATA Act prohibits drinking in public, so consumers have to take these bottles elsewhere and drink. After that, they would be reluctant to come and return the bottle. This move would also lead to a rise in illicit liquor,” sources added.

It is learnt that due to these additional measures, alcohol manufacturers might incur about Rs. 15 million as additional costs. The leading alcohol manufacturer alone sold 55-65 million quarter bottles last year.

Meanwhile, after being in the pipeline for years under consecutive governments, the ban on single-use plastic is set to be implemented from 2021, and the CEA has submitted a proposal to the Cabinet of Ministers on this matter.