Policy: Monday. Thimphu. It is cold. The weatherman has snow at the higher altitudes. The sun, here in the city, brings no warmth.
Two young men blow into their cupped hands. They look at each other with a knowing smile and dash into a restaurant. They need some warming.
Two bottles of beer, two young men. Time: 10am.
High on the wall of the restaurant, which is also a bar, says alcohol will not be served to a person below the age of 18 years. Also, no alcoholic brew will be served before 1pm.
But, here, in the dingy corner of the restaurant where the two young men are downing glass after glass of local beer, the bar sign looks vastly out of place. So it is in most bars and restaurant in the country. No one honours the rules.
On Tuesdays – no drink day – bar owners serve alcohol in mug.
In a society that is steeped deep in drinking culture, regulations countenance tough challenge. Alcohol is one of the leading causes of death, yet the nation has not been able to find an appropriate measure to contain its abuse.
For bar owners, it’s income that matters. For people, it’s the cheap and easy access to alcoholic beverages.
The cabinet recently endorsed National Policy and Strategic Framework to Reduce the Harmful use of Alcohol. It was found that compliance rate was very low among the people. A study in Thimphu found that licensed outlets violated alcohol regulations 90 percent of the time.
The policy will regulate the flow of alcohol through the three As – Availability, Accessibility and Affordability. The policy aim s to strengthen enforcement of restrictions of alcohol trading and reduce availability at specific locations, among others.
“We could lose income if we deny customers drinks,” said a bar owner in Thimphu. “Competition is stiff. Some even sell from home without licence. How are things like this monitored?”
The rule says that a person below the age of 18 years should not be served alcohol. But this rule is complicated, say bar owners.
“How are we to make sure? Things might work if requirement of identity card is made mandatory for those seeking drinks. Otherwise, all efforts will end up being meaningless,” said a bar owner.
The policy says that strict identification check will be enforced. Drayangs, nightclubs and other places of entertainment will be notified to conduct age identification checks.
Pre-licensing education programme for new licence applicants will be made mandatory and applicants will have to pass test on alcohol rules and regulations.
It is found that often it is the small alcohol outlets that flout the rules.
Reported by Tashi Namgay