Alcohol has been the biggest killer in the country. The problem is that even as we have been painfully aware of this fact, we have come nowhere near addressing it once and for all.
We blame it on culture easily and so we have high acceptance in the society. But culture can be changed and nurtured for good. This is not happening.
According to available records, alcohol liver disease (ALD) claimed 767 Bhutanese lives in the past six years; 139 people died due to ALD in 2019. The average proportion of deaths due to ALD was about 30 percent in the past five years. Yet alcohol and related issues seldom make it to Parliament.
The so-called experts are now recommending imposition of a 10-percent sales tax on all alcoholic beverages, including an ad-valorem (according to value) excise duty, and a specific tax of Nu 500 per 1,000ml of ethanol on all types of products.
The effort itself is good but we need to look at how taxation could work without other, perhaps, more important tools. If we are to go with tax on alcohol, what we truly need is an effective approach to alcohol taxation in the country. Plain taxation has a potential to give rise to a more concealed market, like we are having to deal with tobacco. Have we looked at that aspect of tax on alcohol?
Here is what a review report has to say: increase in the price of alcohol is expected to reduce consumption according to the review report. For example, under the proposed change, when the price of K5 Whiskey is increased from Nu 800 (750ml) to Nu 1,418.90, the consumption is estimated to drop by 17.79 percent. Similarly, one of the highest possible drops in consumption was observed for Zumzin wine. A 750ml of the wine currently costs Nu 245. With the proposed taxation, consumption would fall by about 54 percent as the new price of the wine increases to Nu 439.62.
Where we really need to look at is the source of industrially-produced alcohol that is readily available in the market. Only then can we do something with the issue of home-brewed alcohol. Both are a major problem in the society today.
Health officials say that although several alcohol prevention policies were implemented both at the national and community levels, the rate of compliance among drinkers and sellers is low and the enforcement of the existing laws is weak. We need to fix this first. Otherwise, we would be talking about the same issue even 10 years from now.
The economic affairs ministry recently proposed to lift the ban on the issuance of new bar licences. Such contradictions have been the main causes that have left us in such a situation. Alcohol plays a significant role in educational attainment and employment. Economically, the cost of treating alcohol-related illnesses runs to the tune of millions every year. This has also a direct link to poverty among the people. What we also know is that revenue from the sale of alcohol does not compensate the economic losses incurred as a result of alcohol-related harm, loss of productivity, and premature deaths, among others.
Putting a tax on alcohol is just one way of addressing the problem, but it is not the best way. Import and production of alcohol must be reduced drastically. At the same time, regulations must be strong when it comes to home-brewed alcohol. But then, even this will not be enough the way we are dealing with the issue. We need education and awareness and a lot more meaningful recreational facilities. Investment and control must go hand-in-hand. There is a need for radical change.