It is saddening to read that 36 men, including foreign workers, have died as a result of alcohol poisoning.
They were among those who had consumed two types of whisky purchased from multiple shops in the Klang Valley on Sept 17. All the victims had a history of consuming compounded hard liquor.
Malaysia has an active local spirits industry which produces US$43.4 million (RM180 million) worth of cheap liquor per year.
These drinks have an alcohol content of 38% and are widely available at sundry shops and at almost every Chinese medical shop. The smallest bottle of liquor costs only RM1.50.
Malaysia, though a small country, is the 10th largest consumer of alcohol in the world, according to statistics provided by the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP).
Each year, Malaysians spend over US$500 million on alcohol. While the per capita consumption is seven litres, those who do drink alcohol are heavy consumers.
Among the drinking population, the Malaysian Indians, who make up about 8% of the population, are by far the heaviest drinkers with an annual consumption of absolute alcohol exceeding 14 litres per capita.
Beer consumption in Malaysia stands at 11 litres per capita and is comparable with that in European countries, known for their high consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The easy availability of alcoholic drinks in coffee shops, supermarkets, sundry shops and plantations, together with aggressive advertising and promotions, is driving Malaysians to drink. The average age for alcohol dependence is 22 years or even younger.
In Malaysia, the biggest victims of alcohol abuse are the poor, particularly the rural Indian workers who work in rubber and oil palm plantations. Many of them drink alcoholic drinks and toddy (another form of cheap alcohol introduced by the British during the colonial era). Of the estimated 200,000 alcohol drinkers in Malaysia, 75% are liquor consumers.
The rural Indians, according to CAP, spend about US$5.5 million a year on liquor. These drinks are packaged in small bottles of between 140ml and 175ml and sold for as little as RM1.50 to RM3.
Sold at such incredibly low prices, it is obvious that these potent drinks are packaged especially to appeal to the poor. A regular drinker can down six bottles a day, which works out to RM9. In a month, he can spend about RM300 on liquor.
CAP statistics also show that 38% of those who die in road accidents were under the influence of alcohol.
About 30% of hospital admissions, comprising patients with head injuries, were also under the influence of alcohol. About 25% of employees, who are below average in terms of work performance, are heavy consumers of alcohol.
According to a survey conducted by CAP, there are over 150 brands of liquor available in the market.
Some have western names like Apollo, 007 and Father Christmas while some are named after Indian historical figures such as Sivaji and Asoka. These are very potent drinks with their alcohol content ranging between 37% and 70%.
Alcohol abuse is a problem besetting Malaysia’s rural population and instead of treating this issue in isolation, it should be seen as one of the main causes of poverty.
Hence, the government should have a clear policy on alcohol and its consumption. Alcoholic beverages should be treated as a highly regulated product.
What the government can do is:
# Ban all forms of advertising, sponsorship and promotional activities by alcohol companies;
# Ban the sale of liquor in small packages, such as 145ml bottles. There should be a limit on the size of the bottles;
# Increase the taxes imposed on alcohol. There should be a separate tax rate schedule dedicated solely to alcohol, the proceeds of which can be channelled towards activities to control alcohol abuse;
# Step up law enforcement to curb the illegal sale of liquor, especially in sundry shops and homes; and,
# Develop alcohol rehabilitation programmes nationwide, particularly in rural areas. This should include hospital-based care as well as residential and non-residential care and after-care service.
Liquor consumption is a serious problem among Malaysian Indians and even among the foreign workers from Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar.
Since about 86% of the Indian population is now residing in urban areas, the cheap liquor menace has reared its ugly head in towns and cities too. Walk into any sundry shop or supermarket and you will see liquor being sold freely.
CAP has published its findings on alcohol consumption on its website and I have also read many articles on alcohol abuse but to date, no action has been taken by the government.
Ravindran Raman Kutty is an award-winning communications practitioner and a fellow of the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.