… but demand for local beers growing 

Alcohol: During the ongoing consultative health workshop in Wangdue, Bumthang’s Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) chairperson questioned health officials on why the government is producing many alcohol products despite being aware of its impact on society.

The question was raised after a presentation on the top ten causes of mortality in the country. Alcohol liver disease is the top killer in the country every year. According to the 2015 health report, 158 people died of liver disease caused by alcohol that year.

Pemagatshel has the highest number of alcohol drinkers followed by Bumthang and then Mongar, while Gasa has the least, it was presented.

Annually, the government generates less from alcohol sales than what it spends on treating diseases caused by alcohol, health officials pointed out. The ministry spent Nu 184.6 million (M) on referral cases in the 2014-2015 financial year.

Bumthang’s DT chairperson, Jamphel, said that it is heartbreaking to see many people, especially the young, affected by alcohol every year.

“Why is the government not working on reducing alcohol production,” he said. “To achieve GNH, we feel it is important to resolve the alcohol problem first,” he added.

Department of Public Health’s chief health promotion officer, Dorji Phub, said alcohol is also causing the top four non-communicable diseases occurring in the country today. However, he also pointed out that the alcohol issue is culturally sensitive as any event or tendrel in the country involves alcohol.

It was pointed out that the ministry requested the government to introduce three measures: one was for only high quality alcohol to be produced as it would minimise the impact on health, the second was that the issuance of bar licenses be stopped and the third was to restrict grocery shops from selling alcohol.

Two of the three measures recommended were implemented: the issuance of bar licenses was stopped and grocery shops are not allowed to sell alcohol today, Dorji Phub said. However, alcohol is still attractive, accessible and affordable, he added.

The ministry has come up with an alcohol policy that has already been endorsed by the Cabinet. The ministry’s main responsibility is advocacy.

Dorji Phub said the ministry is not trying to ban  alcohol consumption but raising awareness on the ripple effects of alcohol on not just the consumer but their families, children, society and the country.

Dorji Phub said community-level projects aimed at reducing alcohol consumption are being piloted in Lhuentse and Mongar. For example, in Lhuentse, instead of tshogkhang people are encouraged to bring fruits, and in some areas bars have been moved away from schools.

It was also pointed out that last week, the ministry met with an interagency team from WHO, UNDP and UNICEF, to look at how the implementation of the alcohol policy can be supported by these organisations.

Recognising that the health ministry alone cannot succeed in this endeavour, local governments are being asked to come up with their own proposals and initiatives, which the ministry will support. In a meeting with 11 eastern dzongkhags, the alcohol problem was identified as the major problem being faced, Dorji Phub said.

Meanwhile, there are more than 3,000 bars of which around 1,200 are in Thimphu alone. In March 2012, the import of alcohol was banned in the wake of the Indian Rupee crisis in the country. The ban was lifted in January 2014.

While the ban did not reduce alcohol consumption, it did reduce expenditure on imported alcohol. In 2011, prior to the ban, a total of Nu 580M was spent on the import of alcohol, which was reduced to Nu 203.2M more than a year later.

Health officials said that studies by the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) found that the majority of people consume locally brewed alcohol and beer. NSB studies confirmed that demand for local beer was growing, and that annual production of the local beer industry rose from 8.4M litres in 2008 to 13.8M in 2010.

In 2010 Bhutan’s per capita consumption for pure alcohol was more than eight litres.

Dawa Gyelmo | Wangdue