The debate and the attempt to come up with a sound alcohol policy is like two alcoholics debating in a bar. All is forgotten when they leave the bar, only to continue the same when they meet the next time with different views.
The latest is a suggestion of tackling it through taxation policy. An expert review found out that imposing tax could reduce consumption. Making alcohol dear could work, but only to an extent. This is because the choice is not limited. We can surmise that one in three Bhutanese who abuse alcohol are not after K5 whisky or Misty Peak, but after cheaper and more harmful spirits, all manufactured in the country.
The review, conducted by experts including those from the World Health Organization recommend phasing out the production of industrially produced lower-quality alcohol. Lower-quality alcohol, according to the report, was harmful to health and should not be distributed in the market. This is the fact. We finally have a report that found out what was obvious. How much it will convince policymakers is yet to be seen.
Alcohol has been a problem. The bigger problem surrounding alcohol is not finding a solution. While taxation and awareness are seen as solutions, the bigger problem is the source. Alcohol is in good supply, even during nationwide lockdowns. It is one item that will never be in shortage because we produce it, both in factories and at home. Given the awareness, locally-brewed alcohol, using grains, is on the decline. It is, therefore, the industrially produced cheap alcohol that is the problem.
The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed only a single life. In the same period, at least a dozen people could have died because of alcohol or alcohol-related problems. This is a modest estimate. In 2019, more than 100 people succumbed to alcohol-related diseases.
One solution could be cutting at the source. There is a big irony in the alcohol issue. While alcohol is known as the biggest killer, we have been generous with the alcohol business. More and more companies are licensed to produce alcohol. Imported alcohol, once only available at duty free outlets, are available in almost all groceries. If we are producing cheap wines, we also have imported wine, from as far as Australia, in our grocery shops.
At home, the biggest producer of alcohol is a welfare project. We have never gauged what welfare it is bringing to lives and livelihood. On one hand we are talking about alcohol-prevention policy interventions. On the other, industries are becoming more innovative in bottling alcohol that could cater for all income levels. This is not even considering the impact on the environment from the multiple sizes of pet bottles that is the most common waste.
The WHO recommends controlling alcohol outlets in the country. We didn’t need a study to point that out. Everybody was aware of that. We have rules and regulations. The only problem is we didn’t implement them. Every other business is a “shop cum bar” or a ‘restaurant cum bar”. We need a licence to sell alcohol. This is only on paper. Every other shop is selling alcohol because it is highly profitable.
Alcohol business may be lucrative, but it is not if we consider the cost on the government coffer. The direct cost of treating one alcoholic patient is estimated at Nu 122,000. It contributes about Nu 1B to the government coffer, but the economic burden of alcohol on the country is four times that amount.
If we look at the trend, it is not imported alcohol that is burdening the society. It is the locally produced alcohol that is the burden. The evidences are there to help policymakers decide. Will they?