Policy Dialogue on Alcohol Control for a Healthier Sri Lanka

4 April 2024

Recent statistics paint a stark picture of alcohol-related challenges facing Sri Lanka, with an alarming 83% of deaths attributed to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Alcohol consumption emerges as a prominent risk factor for NCDs, exacerbating health costs and contributing to issues such as road accidents and domestic violence. Despite its perceived economic benefits, the economic toll of alcohol-related conditions surpasses any revenue generated. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2015 alone, the economic cost of alcohol-related conditions amounted to a staggering USD 885.86 million, equivalent to 1.07% of Sri Lanka’s GDP for that year.

In light of these pressing concerns, the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) recently hosted a “Policy Dialogue on Alcohol Control for a Healthier Sri Lanka”, at the Saman Kelegama Memorial Auditorium, IPS. The event aimed to advocate for evidence-based alcohol control policies, drawing from findings of the IPS’ “RESET Alcohol Initiative” programme, funded by RESET Alcohol – A Global Alcohol Policy Initiative which delves into critical aspects of alcohol policy, including pricing, taxation, and the broader political economy dynamics at play.

Dr Nisha Arunatilake, Director of Research at IPS, and Mr. Pubudu Sumansekara, Consultant for the Sri Lanka RESET Alcohol Initiative, explained the RESET Alcohol Initiative, which aims to change the disconnect between the public perception of alcohol as a social necessity, and its grave health consequences.

In his keynote speech, Dr Alan Ludovyke, Chairman of the National Alcohol and Tobacco Authority highlighted the health costs of alcohol consumption and the disproportionate burden of alcohol-related violence and health issues on vulnerable communities. He stressed the imperative for collaborative efforts among the Government, think tanks, media, and civil society to address these challenges.

The dialogue featured three insightful panel discussions moderated by Dr Nisha Arunatilake, Dr Sajeeva Ranaweera, from the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) – Expert Committee on Tobacco and Illicit Drugs and Dr Alan Ludovyke, focusing on key aspects of alcohol policy, including price sensitivity of alcohol, revenue implications, and power dynamics of alcohol control. IPS Research Economist Ms Priyanka Jayawardena presented compelling evidence of the economic burden imposed by NCDs, where households spend 10% of their monthly budget on alcohol. She presented evidence that supports alcohol taxation as a cost-effective measure to reduce NCD risk factors, particularly among low-income groups. The progressive nature of alcohol taxation, where higher-income groups bear more tax burden, was underscored as a means to positively influence household economic and health benefits.

IPS Research Fellow Dr Lakmini Fernando highlighted the potential of increased excise duty rates to reduce alcohol consumption while generating government revenue, contributing to economic recovery. Challenges related to data availability for accurate modelling were acknowledged, emphasising the need for quality disaggregated data for informed policy decisions. Recommendations from the panel highlighted the importance of designing a medium-term alcohol tax policy that considers both revenue generation and health impacts, ensuring a balanced approach to alcohol control. IPS Research Economist Ms Sunimalee Madurawala discussed the intricate dynamics of industry interference in alcohol policy and proposed strategies to mitigate its adverse effects on public health.

The policy dialogue, which saw the participation of key stakeholders, including government officials, medical professionals, and civil society representatives underscored the critical need for evidence-based, collaborative approaches to alcohol control in Sri Lanka, balancing health objectives with economic considerations and addressing industry influences effectively.