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Alcohol queues and relief queues

The news that liquor stores were reopened on Friday (17) came as a surprise to both those who consume alcohol and those who do not. The response from both parties, however, was unsurprising – some were very disapproving of it, while some celebrated it.

However, what grabbed the attention of media institutions and prominent figures was not really the reason why the authorities arrived at such a decision, but rather the influx of people who gathered near the few liquor stores that were opened immediately after the announcement about the decision was made. They all began articulating their own interpretations of the situation, adding fuel to the fire without an effort to understand or acknowledge what was actually the case.

Though the congestion near liquor stores was indeed a risk as far as the national health situation is concerned, the people’s reaction was not surprising, considering alcohol is a highly sought-after consumer good that was not officially available to consumers for four weeks. This congestion was simply due to the pent-up demand and once supply is restored, the demand would subside to its usual state, as seen on Saturday (18) when there were barely any queues outside liquor stores.

Apart from the health risks, another angle of criticism was that people were spending money on alcohol that could have been better spent towards the basic needs of their families. One prominent politician who seemed to believe the same said that people were demanding the Government provide them a Rs. 2,000 allowance to survive during the travel restrictions before flocking to liquor stores in what he called were queues that extended 1.5 km.

The issue with this line of thought becomes apparent upon a closer look at the queues that gathered outside liquor stores: They comprised almost entirely of men, unlike the queues to receive the Rs. 2,000 allowance provided by the Government last month . This is the symptom of a disease we all know exists, but barely acknowledge – in most cases, women are left to manage the family expenses, while men tend to make economic decisions of their own accord, at their families’ expense. In such cases, would it be fair to penalise an entire family for a poor purchase decision made by one of its members? Let’s not forget, the line “everyone makes mistakes” was even touted by a particular minister with regard to one of his colleagues’ recent antics.

Moreover, the rush to purchase liquor was fuelled by fears that liquor stores would be closed down again at short notice due to the inevitable opposition from the health sector and the anti-alcohol lobby, with people clamouring to stock up with more than they could consume. In fact, some people even saw a business opportunity in this uncertainty, with a chance to sell their stocks at a mark-up in case this happened.

Thus, it’s clear that what we saw was a result of pent-up demand due to the extended closure, and statistics support this claim. Data from different sources indicates that alcohol consumption among Sri Lankans is actually fluctuating, with no significant increase or decrease.

According to statistics issued by Sri Lanka-based organisation Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), in 2017, 2018, and 2019, alcohol consumption among those between the ages of 15 and 24, and those above 40, had increased from 18.3% in 2017 to 28.1% in 2019, and from 33.1% in 2017 to 46.6% in 2019, respectively. However, those between 25 and 39 years of age showed completely different results – those in this group had increased alcohol consumption from 27.3% in 2017 to 37% in 2018. However, their consumption had plummeted to 25.3% in 2019.

According to the globally recognised statistics analyser of market and consumer data, Statista, per-capita alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2018 had fluctuated slightly. While alcohol consumption had increased from 2.6 litres per annum in 2005 to 4.3 litres per annum in 2016, it had declined to 4.1 litres per annum by 2018.

The bottom line is, even though various parties, especially politicians and religious leaders, try to interpret the state of alcohol consumption in the country on the basis of the crowds that were observed near liquor stores, that does not give us an accurate picture of the true ground-level situation. It is also a fallacy that people have sufficient disposable income and hence need no additional allowance or relief from the Government simply because the queues outside liquor stores on one day were lengthy. These assumptions by public figures do an injustice to the thousands of families which are suffering through these trying times and trying to stay afloat. Let’s not add insult to their injury by minimising their struggles based on what we saw on one rare evening.