Going by the Cabinet’s latest directive to the National Alcohol Harmful Reduction Committee (NAHRC), the government may lift the moratorium on the issuance of bar licenses.

The Cabinet secretary, through a letter issued to the committee on May 28, directed the committee to ensure that all including entertainment centres that genuinely require the license get one.

The directive, which was issued as per the decision of the 93rd session of the Cabinet held on May 18, asks the committee to professionalise bar and liquor retail businesses by reviewing fronting issues and illegal sale of alcohol.

The National Policy and Strategic Framework to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol expired in 2020.

The NAHRC has also been directed to submit effective monitoring mechanisms and advocacy strategies on provisions in the Penal Code of Bhutan that categorise usage of bar licenses as fronting. The government is expected to take a final decision once the committee submits its recommendations to the Cabinet.

Tengye Lyonpo (Economic Affairs Minister) Loknath Sharma, who has submitted the proposal to lift the moratorium on bar and liquor retail shop licenses, said that the Cabinet had held rounds of discussions on the issue and that a final decision would be taken.

“The Cabinet is aware of the issues with the present system but we do not want to rush on such an important decision,” he said, adding that if the Cabinet decides to issue new bar and liquor shop licenses, it would be based on “genuine needs”.

However, he added that the government did not want to totally liberalise bar and liquor shop licenses. “Lifting the moratorium does not mean that bars will be opened everywhere. We will see who genuinely requires a bar license,” he said. 

He said that strict rules and guidelines would be implemented if the moratorium is lifted. A new alcohol policy is being drafted, according to him.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the government was concerned about the harmful impact of alcohol on public health. But he added that there was no concrete data to relate the high number of alcohol consumers to the number of bars.

Earlier, the Cabinet directed the economic affairs ministry and the ministries of health and finance to consult technical experts while reviewing lifting of the moratorium.

The Cabinet also asked the ministries to revisit issuing licences to tourist-standard restaurants and hotels with lodging facilities and come up with recommendations that would benefit “the general businesspersons”.

There are about 4,500 bar licenses, 600 retail liquor shop licenses and 195 liquor wholesaler licenses issued in the country.

By MB Subba 

Edited by Tshering Palden