Rule to be reinforced and strictly with the new policy on alcohol

Policy: There will be no “Shop cum Bar” while groceries will not be allowed to sell alcohol soon.

The Department of Industry will soon come hard on separating bars run jointly with other businesses.

The recently endorsed National Policy and Strategic Framework to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol (2015-2020) directs the economic affairs ministry to enforce separation of bars from other businesses including grocery shops except in hotels and restaurants. According to the policy the ministry also has to enforce licensed alcohol retailers and wholesale shops from selling alcohol for on-premise consumption.

The suspension of issuance of new bar licenses still stands in the meantime.

Department of industry’s director Tandin Tshering said the rule of prohibiting joint business with bar was in place long before the endorsement of alcohol control policy. The ministry has remained consistent in enforcing that bar should be separated from other establishments.

He said, while enforcing the rule in urban area was possible because of presence and reach of trade and industry offices, it was almost impossible in the rural corners. With the involvement of local government in monitoring and supervision now enforcing existing rule is expected to be stringent.

“The alcohol policy gives more teeth to the existing rule that the bar and other establishment need to separate,” he said adding that the two establishment must be separated because groceries and bar operation timing are different.

Should the two establishments be allowed, the existing rules in place could be undermined in terms of bar timing.  People could come in pretext of buying grocery and quench their thirst for alcohol, he said.

Although rampant, the numbers of such joint establishments were not available.

But most bars in the urban areas, the director said are standalones or partitioned and joint businesses are common in rural areas.

Among others, the economic affairs ministry, according to the alcohol policy, will enforce non-issuance of stand-alone bar licenses to minimize outlets. It will also suspend issuance of approval for alcoholic beverages project proposals for above 8 percent volume of alcohol in accordance with the resolution of the 8th session of the 1st Parliament of Bhutan.

In the mid 1990s the sale of alcohol had become rampant. The ministry had then frozen issuing of new bar license for few years until January 1, 1999.

Director Tandin Tshering said, prior to the suspension license fee used to be nominal. But after the suspension was lifted, the fee was increased. It was raised from Nu 1,000 to 5,000 depending on places of operation. The increase was following rampant rent seeking behaviour among licence owners.

The ban was lifted only after rules such as illegal hiring of bar licences, banning bar operation near religious and educational institutes, observing dry days, selling liquor before 1 pm and prohibiting bars with other business came into effect.

Yet again in 2010, following submission from dzongkhag and gewog administrations urging the need to control bar license, issuing new bar license was suspended in 2014.

After the second ban, owners who failed to renew their licenses on time were cancelled. Numbers of licenses cancelled so far were not available.  Number of bar license since then has remained almost same at about 4,500, the director said. “We want to maintain that level,” he added.

But between 2009 and 2010, the licence fee was increased from Nu 5,000 in 2007 to Nu 15,000. The minimum fee then was Nu 3,000. The fee was increased to make holding of bar licenses expensive. At the same time excise duties and sales taxes on liquor was increased, the director said.

“The major problem right now could be as a result of expressive issuance of licenses or affordable access to alcohol,” he said. For instance in the East people need not go to a bar to drink but almost every household is a brewery, which makes alcohol easily accessible.

“From the government side, we need to look at accessibility specially from the supply side,” he said. “We’ve to make licence as scarce as possible and every second shop should not sell alcohol.”

He added that to control accessibility first step is to control bar license, than enforce rules strictly and make alcohol unaffordable.

According to the alcohol policy, economic affairs ministry will conduct joint inspections with relevant stakeholders such as BICMA, Thromde to enforce the prohibition of sale of alcohol.

A procedural manual for conducting field inspections for alcohol retailing practices among outlets will also be developed.

Nirmala Pokhrel