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Drinking patterns among Sri Lankans

ALCOHOLISM: Sri Lanka has a written history of over 2500 years and India had a great influence in the cultural outlook of Sri Lanka up to the 15th century. Since the 16th century with the advent of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British our outlook, habits and behaviour patterns especially in the urban areas like Colombo, Negombo and Galle have undergone drastic changes.

Toddy has been a popular alcoholic drink among Sri Lankans since the days of Sinhalese kings and has a low alcohol content (less than 10 percent) and had been quite popular among our ancient warriors.


ALCOHOL: Serving and consuming have become common customs in Sri Lanka.

Buddishm, Hinduism and Islam discourage consumption of alcohol whereas Roman Catholic and other Christian religions don't discourage consumption of alcohol and as far as I am aware alcohol is served freely during religious parties such as Christmas.

After Independence the Sri Lankan government requested the production of legal types of liquor such as arrack, beer and whisky and there had been a very significant increase in the revenue from excise tax (10.4 billion rupees in 1992 to 52.3 billion rupees in 2002).

During the above period, the total production of alcohol has almost doubled. There has been a rapid increase in the production and consumption of alcohol during the last 15 years.

Beer production has increased over five fold between 1992-2002 period whereas hard liquor production has increased from 53.4 million litres to 59.6 million litres during 1992-2002. Consumption of illicit alcohol is estimated to be around 50 percent of the total alcohol consumption in the country.

In 1994 with the blessings of the Cabinet of ministers headed by the President, there was an attempt to popularize beer drinking among Sri Lankans by reducing the price of beer with the sole motive of diverting hard liquor drinking to beer drinking. This attempt failed miserably as people who were used to hard liquor such as arrack, whisky and kassippu could not be persuaded to drink beer.

What actually happened was that people including some women in urban areas who were not used to taking alcohol started drinking beer.

People who could not afford to drink hard liquor such as whisky, brandy, gin and arrack started to turn to local illicit brews like "kassippu" in which alcohol content is very much higher than arrack. It is noteworthy that kassippu is cheaper than arrack. This may be one reason why kassippu is commonly served at wedding receptions in the rural areas.

In 2002, Sri Lankan drinkers consumed 56.7 million litres of malt alcohol (e.g. beer) 56.6 million litres of arrack, 7 million litres of toddy and 3 million litres of foreign liquor (to the value of U.S. dollars 17 million) and this include one million litres of imported beer in addition to spirits.

After the liberalization policy of the government in mid 1995, there were 1886 licensed liquor outlets in the form of restaurants, hotels, rest houses, wine shops, clubs, canteens, taverns, chinese restaurants and sports clubs.

It is an open secret that majority of politicians earned a significant sum of money by "selling" liquor permits to tavern owners. We are very grateful to the present government in their decision to stop issuing any new permits to the liquor traders.

Alcoholic beverages consumed in Sri Lanka

These include:-

(a)Low alcohol beverage such as beer, wine and other so called "energy drinks" with alcohol content of less than 10 percent.

(b) Strong liquor or spirits such as arrack, whisky, gin, brandy with alcohol content of 35-40 percent.

Illicit liquor such as kassippu with very high alcohol content (around 50 percent).

Arrack and beer are produced almost in equal quantities (about 57 million litres per year) and other types of alcohol are produced in smaller quantities. Production of toddy (which is extracted by tapping flowers of coconut palymyrah and "kitul" which are popular in all parts of Sri Lanka) amounted to about 7 million litres in the year 2002.

Culturally drinking in Sri Lanka is mainly confined to males. Drinking among females is not common and is very rare in rural areas. Drinking light drinks such as wine and beer is not uncommon among urban females especially those in Colombo and other towns.

Sri Lankan husbands (at least a majority) generally don't tolerate their wives drinking even beer at a party and wives do not approve their husbands getting drunk at a party. But drinking is somewhat tolerated for a man not for a woman out at a bar with friends or when the husband is having dinner with his wife and with friends at home.

A number of wives especially in the urban areas tolerate their husbands having a few drinks at a party or at a wedding reception.

Majority of Sri Lankans especially the Buddhists and Christians (including Catholics) serve alcohol especially whisky, brandy and arrack at wedding and homecoming parties and majority of Sri Lankans believe that it is below their dignity to have a wedding reception without serving alcohol to the guests.

In wedding receptions in the rural areas arrack and kassippu (generally kassippu) are served to the invitees.

Frequent drinking in Sri Lanka is found in up-country plantation areas, and in urban areas (especially Catholic and Christian areas to the North of Colombo, Gampaha and Puttalam).

Alcohol drinking in Colombo is more common in the westernized and English-educated communities and serving alcohol in households to friends and relatives is a common custom among them. Many females in the English speaking society are exposed to drinking compared to other parts of the country.

Drinking during religious and National festivals

It is common knowledge that in Sri Lanka, alcohol is consumed during Christmas, Sinhalese New Year and other national festivals. Drinking among Muslims is low and appears to be under-reported and even some patients who have come to me smelling of alcohol deny that they have ever consumed alcohol.

In some of the alms givings, "Pirith" ceremonies and "Bana" preaching ceremonies alcohol is served to the visitors in a "separate unofficial bar" without being seen by the Buddhist monks and this is more common in rich westernized Buddhist houses than rural Buddhist houses.

In rural areas as far as I am aware people don't like to work in paddy fields unless kassippu is served to them in addition to the daily wages. Same is true of other daily paid workers in rural areas.

It is common knowledge that a significant number of male doctors consume alcohol in moderation and in majority of doctors' parties (usually sponsored by pharmaceutical industry) expensive drinks are served.

Some doctors' wives consume wine at above parties. Alcohol dependence is very rare among Sri Lankan doctors unlike those in the West.

Alcohol related problems

Alcohol related diseases are on the rise and death rates following alcoholic cirrhosis and other diseases of the liver have increased from 38.5 to 125.2 from 1975 to 2002.

Alcoholic cirrhosis is very high in heavy drinking areas such as up - country Tamil plantation areas and North of Colombo (Gampaha and Puttalam districts).

Psychiatric diseases following consumption of alcohol has increased during recent years (e.g. 36.2 in 1990 to 58 in 1995). According to 2002 Department of Health statistics, one out of four mental disorders in Sri Lanka are due to alcohol.

Rate of alcoholic poisoning has increased from 537 in 1985 to 652 in 1995. Motor accidents, significant number of which are due to driving after excessive consumption of alcohol have increased during the period 1990 to 1993. Driving under the influence of alcohol has increased from 8.9 in 1990 to 20.7 in 1993 (more than 100 percent increase).

In some families especially in urban areas, alcohol dependence in found to be a major problem that leads to broken homes. Alcohol addicts are more frequently divorced or separated. A high degree of domestic violence both in urban and rural areas is linked to alcohol consumption.

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Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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