In an effort to curb mushrooming of bars and access to alcohol, the economic affairs ministry imposed a ban on issuing bar licences.
That was about a decade ago in 2010. However, it was not a uniform ban. The ban didn’t apply to hotels and resorts.
The intent was good. Alcohol was recognised as a problem. Alcohol-related diseases were overwhelming our free health system, it has become a severe social problem and the economic burden was massive.
There had to be solutions to the problem. Restricting access was a good idea. Therefore, after recognising that there was one bar for every 177 Bhutanese, the government imposed a ban on issuing bar licences.
Did it work? Not at all!
The only impact of the ban was on the cost of leasing or hiring a bar licence. After the ban, bar licences were leased or hired at Nu 20,000 a month. That is equivalent to renting out a flat. Hiring licence became a lucrative business. Authorities cancelled bar licences if not renewed on time. This boozed those who owned a licence.
A retailer who forgot to renew the hired licence was asked Nu 300,000 in compensation. Now parliamentarians are saying that bar licences are illegally traded for as high as Nu 600,000.
The ban, even if the intentions were good, didn’t work. It is good that the present government is thinking of relaxing the rule. Alcohol is a lucrative business. If we cannot come with ideas to curb the sale of alcohol, just restricting it to a few is not wise.
Besides, the rule has not helped. It is an open secret that almost every shop sells alcohol-with or without licence. Some are what people call the “den” of officials who are supposed to be monitoring. Those in the business say without selling alcohol, there is no income.
The problem is not the licence, but our weakness for alcohol. There are studies and researches done. We even have a policy and alcohol issue is a recurring issue in the parliament. Yet, we are still looking for solutions.
Like many policies, we have failed in implementing regulations related to alcohol. Dry days, timings, restricting the sale to minors or even letting breweries are contradicting our own policies. We have welfare projects that brew cheap alcohol.
The revised tax on import of alcohol has created demand for locally produced alcohol. On one hand, we see government spending money on drafting policies, yet they go on approving new breweries. Those who have a taste for alcohol say our beers and wines are poison.
Alcohol will continue to be a problem. Many believe it is a tradition. It is not. It is just a bad habit that is root across society across all age groups. We need better solutions that banning licences.