Controlling harmful use of alcohol is still a major challenge.

Presenting the interim report on the review of harmful use of alcohol in the country, the National Council’s (NC) good governance committee (GGC) members shared that despite the government’s concerted efforts, alcohol remains a problem.

The preliminary findings, presented yesterday at the ongoing 22nd session stated that alcohol liver disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the country, where a total of 514 patients died between 2015 and 2017.

It also stated that 6,529 traffic offences were related to drink-driving from September 2016 to 2018 and despite the enforcement of “zero tolerance” on Fridays, drink driving offences have not reduced.

Poor compliance with laws, weak coordination among implementing agencies, lack of attention on social determinants causing alcohol abuse, lack of family support, availability and affordability, cultural belief and perception are some of the factors that attributed to the low impact of alcohol reduction policies.

The report stated that only 10 percent of the sales outside legal hours (before 1pm and after 10pm) were found in compliance, only 22 percent followed prohibiting the sale of alcohol to underage and only 43 percent were found in compliance following the Tuesday “dry day,” rule. Several outlets selling alcohol were also reportedly found.

It also stated that the economic affairs ministry’s issuance of licenses to distilleries and breweries with less than eight percent of alcohol content is not in line with the health ministry. “There is no lead agency that monitors the implementation of policy measures.”

The report pointed out that lack of parents support and guidance, especially in urban areas where parents, who are busy with their work and do not have time for their children, seem to be one of the main factors influencing youth to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Despite measures, alcohols are freely sold in every retail shop at relatively affordable prices. The number of bars has, however, reduced. There are 4,476 bars as of March 2017.

It also noted that 15 new breweries and distilleries licenses were issued.

It was also found that the belief that alcohol is necessary for reducing pain and initiation of breastfeeding during the post-partum recovery period was seen as a reason for most women to drink initially.

“More day-scholar students reported about alcohol-related cases and civil servants placed in remote areas develop drinking habits partly due to lack of recreational facilities,” the report stated.

The interim report also included the current scenario of alcohol use and its harmful effects, current interventions to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, and way forward.

Although there are alcohol users in every dzongkhag, the concentration is more in the central and eastern regions where Pemagatshel represents the highest percentage of alcohol users followed at 49 percent, followed by Mongar.

Total of 70 percent of the 3,261 cases of domestic violence recorded by the RENEW from 2004 to 2017 was committed under the influence of alcohol.

The report also stated that the Bhutan Global student health survey report 2016 showed that 24.2 percent of 13-17 years of age confessed to drinking alcohol.

According to the report, the economic returns from alcohol are estimated at 1B while the economic burden was estimated at 5B due to excessive alcohol consumption.

The health ministry spent about Nu 26 million (M) in 2015 and Nu 27M in 2016 for the treatment of patients with alcohol-related diseases.

The committee proposed to conduct more stakeholders’ consultation meetings to understand the issue of coordination within the responsible agencies, make field visits to different dzongkhags and institutions to meet with local government officials, parents, and students to confirm the preliminary findings and ascertain key social determinants causing alcohol abuse.

The report stated that current interventions are mostly geared towards modifying individuals’ behaviour through the control of supply and demand sides of alcohol while the root cause of the alcohol abuse receive less attention.

The committee members suggested that NC could explore its attention on policy interventions that will adequately tackle social determinants causing alcohol abuse, and impact on lives of people across all sections of society.

The final outcome of the review report will be deliberated in the summer session with concrete policy interventions where NC members suggested that the committee should align the study with the tradition and culture of offering alcohol.

The members also suggested looking into the latest report because the interim report was based mostly on the studies and survey conducted a decade ago.

Some NC members also suggested reviewing the zero tolerance on Friday look into why Tuesday was kept as dry day and review including the sale of alcohol from 1pm to 10pm because most of the drayangs and discotheques open after 10pm and alcohols are sold before 1pm.

Members also suggested a comprehensive study to see whether locally brewed alcohol or imported alcohol are the root cause of the alcohol problem because many Bhutanese have switched to imported alcohol after many rural people have cut down on local alcohol.

Yangchen C Rinzin