GEORGE TOWN: It was the last straw for a teacher when her husband asked their underage child to go out and buy cheap liquor for him.

After 15 years of marriage, she walked out on him.

It was at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and the man, a lorry driver who was getting very little work due to the interstate travel ban, had resorted to drinking cheap liquor to deal with his financial woes.

“The woman, who is in her 40s, reached out for emotional support and finally got a divorce,” said Datuk Dr Florence Sinniah, founder of Pertubuhan Kebajikan Sneham Malaysia (Sneham).

“His drinking turned into an addiction and worsened over time,” she said.

With the cost of living rising, many are turning to cheap, illicit liquor to feed their drinking habit.

About a third of the total alcohol consumption in the country is in illicit beer, which is a threat to the economy, consumers and local brewers, according to the Confederation of Malaysian Brewers website. About 100 million litres of illicit beers – or about a third of total consumption – are sold every year, it says.

The loss in revenue to the government is estimated at RM1.5bil.

Malaysian Anti-Cheap Liquor Movement chief coordinator P. David Marshel said a 375ml bottle of cheap, legal, compounded liquor costs less than RM10 a bottle.

It is made with 40% alcohol, mixed with water, caramel, sugar and flavouring. A regular bottle of beer, with under 5% alcohol, costs about RM18.

“The pandemic and economic recession have led to more people relieving stress through alcohol consumption.

“Imported liquor is more expensive due to the currency exchange, so the demand for cheap liquor is growing,” said the Prai councillor

“Many consumers, especially those in the lower income group, are unaware of the health hazards posed by the high alcohol content of cheap liquor. They don’t just end up being drunk, but also suffer from alcohol poisoning,” he said.

Marshel urged the government to review regulations on the sale of cheap liquor, which are sold at sundry shops.

“They should only be sold at dedicated stores. A floor price must be set to ensure that such liquor is not easily affordable,” he said.

Marshel said his group was not against the selling of liquor.

“We want cheap liquor to be tightly controlled because of the social ills they bring,” he stressed.

There are about 5,700 shops in the country licensed to sell liquor, with about 30 local companies producing cheap liquor.

For a start, he said the Seberang Prai City Council, which receives an average of five new applications to sell liquor every month, had not approved any in recent years.