Trashigang dzongkhag, in an initiative to reduce alcohol consumption, would stop offering alcohol including locally brewed ara during cremation and other religious activities.

This is a part of an alcohol harm reduction programme initiated since 2016 to cut down alcohol offerings that were once a customary tradition during gatherings.  

Following an executive order from the cabinet in August 2016, a dzongkhag level committee was formed to initiate a programme to reduce the consumption and commercial brewing of alcohol in the dzongkhag.

On February 24, 2017, the dzongkhag tshogdu formed gewog and chiwog level committees to implement the programme. 

Under the programme, an action plan was developed by respective gewogs and chiwogs to reduce the consumption of alcohol. 

The committee in consultation with the public agreed that every village would completely stop offering alcohol including locally brewed ara during times of cremation and other religious activities. 

Phongmey gup, Palden Dorji, said that even during visits of high-level dignitaries, the quantity of alcohol presented as tshog-chang(wine offering) has deteriorated. “We allow a maximum of three jars of locally brewed alcohol as tshog-chang today,” he said. “Previously each household used to bring at least a jar during such programmes.” 

Today tshog-chang has been replaced by tea and local produces like fruits, vegetables and dairy products, among others.  

The gup said that health ministry’s awareness programmes on the harmful effects of alcohol have proved effective in changing the age-old tradition on alcohol consumption. “The committee received full support from the public when the action plan was developed,” he said. “Alcohol consumption rate in the gewog has reduced by almost 40 percent since the implementation of the action plan.”   

According to health officials, it was impossible to completely stop the drinking habit among people since alcohol has a strong traditional importance in Bhutanese culture. 

So awareness programmes on the harmful effects of alcohol were initiated. 

The dzongkhag health sector has covered all 15 gewogs including chiwogs that have high alcohol consumption rates. 

Bartsham gup, Kelzang Dawa, said the programme is a success at the gewog. “Without undermining our tradition, we have managed to cut down on alcohol production and consumption,” he said. “People who were once heavy drinkers are today seen advising others to reduce drinking. This is a positive change.”

In 2012, national health survey found that 29 percent of the total population in Trashigang was current alcohol drinkers. The dzongkhag was placed in the fourth position after Pemagatshel (42 percent), Zhemgang (39 percent) and Mongar (33 percent).      

According to the annual household survey, in 2013 there were a total of 1,641 regular alcohol consumers in Trashigang. The number increased to 2,013 in 2014 and to 2,344 in 2015. 

After the implementation of the programme, the number of regular alcohol consumers is reported to have decreased to 1,945 in 2016. 

Meanwhile, the National Policy and Strategic Framework To Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol (2015-2020), states that the per capita adult (15 years) pure alcohol consumption among Bhutanese at 8.47 litres is higher than the global consumption of 6.2 litres.

Given the high rate of alcohol consumption among the Bhutanese, the financial and social burden related to alcohol is also on the rise. Besides being the top killer among non-communicable diseases in the country, alcohol was also identified as the main cause of domestic violence.   

The health ministry spent about Nu 27 million (M), up by a million from 2015, to treat patients with alcohol-related diseases in 2016. 

The total number of deaths due to alcohol-related liver diseases (ALD) increased from 140 in 2012 to 190 in 2016 according to the annual health bulletin, 2017. 

Younten Tshedup | Trashigang