Bhikkus battle tobacco, alcohol lobbies

by Kalinga Seneviratne, Lanka Daily News, Jan 23, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's Buddhist monks see their fight against tobacco and alcohol abuse as more urgent than the war that the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is prosecuting against the LTTE.

"At least 50,000 people have died due to the conflict in the past 25 years. But, every year about 40,000 die in Sri Lanka due to illnesses from alcohol and tobacco use," observed Hadigalle Wimalasara Thera, a member of the JHU which provides crucial support to the Government.

"Those who talk about human rights are strangely silent when it comes to an issue like this which kills and harms much more people," added the Buddhist monk, taking a dig at the non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) that have tagged the JHU as 'extremist' for the support it gives to the Government to find a military solution to the ethnic conflict.

While refraining from alcohol and drugs is one of the five precepts (Panchasila) in Buddhism, consumption of alcohol in Sri Lanka is one of the highest in the world on a per capita basis.

Thus, when the JHU entered Parliament in 2004, the second private Member's bill it presented in the house (first was the anti-conversion bill to counter aggressive Christian evangelists) was the anti-alcohol and tobacco bill, which received full support from all religious leaders.

"The British colonial rulers promoted alcohol to destroy the local culture and traditional values, and since independence (in 1948) leading Buddhist monks have asked the Government to crack down on alcohol use and stop the use of the lion as a beer label. No action was taken by successive governments and so when JHU came to Parliament we decided to introduce legislation," Wimalasara Thera told IPS.

This bill was strongly supported by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) whose health minister presented a similar follow up bill to parliament.

But the bill was quickly challenged in court by the tobacco and alcohol companies and some NGOs, claiming it was infringing on fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. JHU supported the defence of the bill in court with a seven-member high-powered team of lawyers who appeared without any fees. The courts upheld the defence and the bill was passed unanimously in Parliament.

The Tobacco and Alcohol Act of 2006 came into effect on Dec. 1, 2006 and the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) was set up to oversee its implementation.

The Government has also set up the 'Mathata Thitha' (full stop to alcohol, tobacco and drugs) campaign committee, with the strong, personal backing of Rajapaksa and headed by JHU's parliamentary leader Athuraliya Rathana Thera. Addressing an international AIDS conference in Colombo in August, the President described this campaign as a "key aspect of the social policy of our government."

According to the JHU, in the first nine months of 2007 there were 41,467 raids conducted by the Police anti-narcotics division in the implementation of the Act, earning the Government 127 million rupees (1.2 million US dollars) in fines.

Critics of the Mathata Thitha campaign accuse it of encouraging the excise department and police to harass ordinary people who smoke in public, and undermine the entertainment industry. One of the major planks of the act is a strict ban on media advertising of tobacco and alcohol products, including showing images of people consuming these items at parties and in films or TV programmes.

Recently the Sirasa TV network was pulled up for showing flickering, multi-coloured squares to obliterate smoking and drinking scenes in its programmes. They received complaints claiming the station was undermining the legislation.

"As broadcasters it's our duty to abide by the law and what we're doing is exactly that," argues Asoka Dias, station manager of Sirasa. "But as broadcasters it's a challenge practically when it comes to implement regulations in that Act," he added in an interview with IPS.

The Act gives a very broad definition of what is an alcohol advertisement. It includes any distinctive writing, still or moving picture, sign or colours or other visual image or audio that promotes or is intended to promote drinking or purchase of an alcoholic product, including promoting its brand name.

Responding to such media concerns, Carlo Fonseka, chairman of NATA, argues that the Act places emphasis on discouraging children from getting into the habit of smoking and drinking alcohol. Thus, restricting media exposure to these is crucial.

"The media promotes smoking and drinking (alcohol) not only to be happy but even as a cure to sadness," observed Wimalasara Thera. "Any business prospers on advertising and for us to be able to restrict it by this Act is a big victory," he added.

The JHU monks believe that weaning away children is the real goal of the campaign. In a country where anti-smoking or anti-alcohol messages have not been incorporated into the school curriculum yet, they plan to do it in a gradual manner.

The Mathata Thitha campaign has started a programme to first sensitise government workers who work at a community level to take the message to the grassroots, where the illicit brew 'kasippu' is heavily consumed and protected by the underworld. They see tackling this menace as crucial to the ultimate success of the campaign.

"As part of the campaign we will be giving 1,000 sermons in 1,000 temples across the country over the next few years against these two evils, incorporating the core messages of Mathata Thitha," Dutuwawe Lankananda Thera, a JHU central committee member told IPS.

He added that a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Government put the Mathata Thitha campaign at the top of the public approval list with 27 percent, while the government's war against the LTTE came second with 25 percent.

"This campaign has galvanised public support because it is led by Buddhist monks,'' argues Wimalasara Thera. "If government officials try to lead it, people won't trust them because many of them are corrupt."