On alcohol again

The government has decided to lift the ban on issuance of bar licence. The economic affairs ministry has prepared rules on the re-issuance and will be presented to the Cabinet soon.

This is the most appropriate time to relook into our alcohol policy again.

The national policy adopted in 2015 comes to an end this year. How bar licenses would be issued is yet to be seen. The problem of alcohol is not in bar licences.

Alcohol was one of the earliest problems recognised. We are still discussing it without any effective solution. Discussing the alcohol issue can be likened to a group of alcoholics debating at a never-ending drinking session. They talk a lot without any substance or result and forget everything until the next session.

A decision or a policy on alcohol should be the easiest. There are enough facts and figures to come to a conclusion. It is, at the risk of sounding clichéd, the biggest killer. Studies have found that every 2 in 5 Bhutanese currently drink alcohol and, among them, 1 in 5 engage in heavy episodic drinking, which is more than six standard drinks on any occasion.

Volume wise, the per capita (adult) alcohol consumption among Bhutanese is 8.47 litres. The global consumption at 6.2 litres. The economic burden is huge too. It was Nu 5 billion in 2014, four times higher than the revenue earned from alcohol in the same year. At the hospital, there are more deaths related to alcohol than any other. With one death in every two days, alcohol liver disease continues to be the top killer disease in the country. It is also the root cause of all social ill.

These are not the latest figures. But looking around, we have not done much after knowing the problems backed by fact and figures. When it comes to alcohol, the general agreement is that nothing much can be done.  There is a tendency of agreeing that it is a part of our culture.

That is true. Alcohol is very much a part of our life. We drink during the birth of a child, at all happy occasions and at the duthroe. We drink at gatherings and official dinners even if rules bar it. But that should not deter us from putting on place strong rules and regulations.

Regulating bar licences to regulate access is a joke. Since the trade department stopped issuing bar licences, there are more outlets, we can surmise. All it did was encourage a black market where bar licences were traded.

The timing is perfect. We can expect the Lhengye Zhungtshog (Cabinet) with two ministers from the medical field and the prime minister, a surgeon always advocating a healthy lifestyle, will look beyond the licence issue.

The national policy has expired. It recommended pricing and policy mechanisms to control affordability and accessibility. The recommendation was good, but the implementation was not. Alcohol is still cheap and freely available with  bar licences or not.

Because alcohol is important to Bhutanese, any government that takes bold decisions will have to take the flak. But, if we can cut down on consumption, save lives, families and the burden on society, the government will be appreciated when they realise the impact of interventions.

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