Mixed reactions to govt’s decision 

Tashi Dema 

The Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) approved 1,282 restaurant owners to sell liquor in the past 10 days since the government decided to allow restaurants to serve alcohol.

Data compiled by the ministry showed that from June 1 to 10, the ministry approved 379 restaurant owners to sell liquor in Sarpang, followed by 159 in Thimphu and 132 in Samdrupjongkhar.  Restaurant owners in all the 20 dzongkhags had sought approval. One restaurant owner from Gasa also got the approval.

The numbers are going to increase as officials confirmed that there are about 9,000 restaurants in the country that could sell liquor after the ministry did away with the bar license system allowing restaurants to serve liquor.

This comes after the Parliament lifted the moratorium on bar, retail wine and liquor licensing on December 9 last year.

The rules and regulations for the operation of restaurant and retail wine and liquor business 2022 state that all restaurants that are not attached or combined with a grocery, general shop or other trading activity could serve liquor. It prescribes restaurants to be equipped with adequate sitting arrangements ensuring hygiene, safety and comfort of customers.

While the move is expected to stop people who owned bar licenses and hired it to others at huge cost from taking advantage of the moratorium, many expressed concern that easy availability of alcohol would aggravate the alcohol problem.

A health official in a dzongkhag where alcohol is a serious issue said easy accessibility of alcohol is going to have more impact on the health of the people and social problems.

According to the 2022 annual health bulletin, there were 31.5 persons with alcohol liver diseases in every 10,000 people in 2021.

Mental and behavourial disorders due to the use of alcohol increased to 1,906 in 2021 from 925 in 2017.

A corporate employee said alcohol-related diseases are among the biggest health burdens in the country today and making it available in all restaurants will worsen the situation. He cited the example of how alcoholism leads to social and economic loss. “Alcohol has been recognised as the leading cause of vehicle accidents, deaths, injuries and domestic violence cases in the country. It is only going to get worse.”

Another Thimphu resident said making alcohol available in all restaurants is a policy blunder. “Alcohol is the main cause for many crimes, including domestic violence. The government failed to understand this side of the alcohol problem.” He also said that youth-related crimes will increase because of the easy accessibility to alcohol.

While the rules and regulations clearly mentioned that restaurants and retail shops within schools, colleges, universities, TVET institutes, public offices and institutions, hospitals, dzongs and dratshangs will not be allowed to sell liquor,  it also states that any Bhutanese who are 18 years and above could avail the license to sell liquor.

A netizen said that Bhutanese are bound for a self-inflicted social disaster if the legal age limit is not increased to 21 years from 18. “It’s no secret that people in late teens and 21 years are most experimental and vulnerable. Alcohol should not be easily available to them like doma or chips.”

Ineffective ban

But there are many  who supported the government’s decision, justifying that the moratorium on the issuance of bar licenses from 2010 has not reduced consumption of alcohol, but increased illegal sales of alcohol, fronting, and the unethical trade and operation of numerous illegal bars. “Everybody knows the rule was not effective. Alcohol is available everywhere,” said one.

Meanwhile, in a remote village in Zhemgang, eight of the  nine women Kuensel talked to in the village said they drink almost every day.

They said they drink because their work is tiring and exhausting. “Cool beer after a hard day helps us relax,” a 37-year-old woman said. Empty beer bottles stacked as high as the one-story shop is an indication of how much they are consuming.

With alcohol a part of all cultural and religious activities in the village, women claimed they cannot stop drinking. “Even when we go to work on other people’s farm, they serve us alcohol,” another woman said.

Health officials in the village visit every household and ask the residents to calculate how much money and time they waste on alcohol, but it is not helping villagers to stop drinking.