Tobacco affects Bhutanese leaders, not alcohol

Published on Jun 28 2011 // Commentary

A month after the finalising the draft regulation to control the alcohol consumption in the country, the government took steps that in fact encouraged people to increase it.

The government officials say alcohol consumption among educated lot has gone down while the numbers among young people are growing. The production and consumption of locally brewed alcohol in the rural areas has also decreased which in turn has increased the import and production of branded alcohol. Statistics published in 2008 showed, Bhutan produced 1 million litres and imported 12 million litres of alcohol in one year. Nu. 19 million was collected as taxes from alcoholic products in 2009.

Last week government issued unprecedented number of licenses in southern Bhutan as vendor of the alcohol sell under army welfare project. The licenses are for the next three years. Through this, the government aims to collect at least Nu 10 million in a year as tax. The opposition leader says these are the licenses to kill.

According to Kuensel report, vendors in Phuentsholing region, including Gomtu and Pugli bid Nu 14.898M in total, up from Nu 8.789M in 2008. This is an increase of Nu 6.109M. A single vendor in Phuentsholing increased its bid from Nu 6.51M to Nu 9.15M.

Bid amount increased by 190 percent in Lhamoizingkha, 69 percent in Phuentsholing, 318 percent in Samtse (Samchi), 210 percent in Gomtu and 324 percent in Pugli.

In Kuchidaina, Samtse, the license fee increased by 2,020 percent. The previous vendor paid Nu 25,000 in 2008, while last week, the highest bidder paid Nu 530,000. Similarly, Jumsa, Bara, Jitti, and Duarpani in Samtse also saw an increase of more than 500 percent.

These licenses are issued just days before government presents the annual budget in the parliament. According to BBS, the government is intending to increase tax on the alcohol business which is likely to come through this budget.

Government has not considered the increasing health hazards due to increased alcohol consumption. The alarm of alcohol consumption is reflected by this fact: there were 264 alcohol related cases in 2009 registered in Thimphu referral hospital and Nu. 20 million was spent for their treatment. According to the health ministry’s annual health bulletin, the number of alcohol liver diseases registered at the hospital rose from 1,217 in 2005 to 1,943 in 2010.

Drinking alcohol can affect liver or cause brain damage, heart disease, high blood pressure and increases risk of many cancers. It may also increase risk of injury through road trauma, violence, falls and accidental death. Alcohol is the major cause of domestic violence in Bhutan.

In 2006 alone 45 people died of alcohol related diseases at the national referral hospital out of 149 patients receiving treatment here. A year before that 40 were killed by alcohol. Another report says, alcohol-caused liver diseases killed as many as 122 Bhutanese in 2010, continuing to make it the biggest cause of death in the country, although it is a drop from 128 in 2009.

The government’s issuance of license is utter non responsible act. It is not only encouraging people to drink more but also promoting illegal alcohol business across the border. Villages in India across border are also primary business areas of the Bhutanese alcohol vendors. Phuentsholing wins Jaigaon only in alcohol business. That’s Bhutan’s pride.

The vendors openly sell alcohol border without paying any taxes to the government. This is commonplace in border towns, such as Phuentsholing and Samtse, where liquor is easily ferried across the border either by vehicles or on foot. These alcohols reach as far as Siliguri. Read more here

About 40 percent of liquor sold in Bhutan eventually ends up in the nearby Indian towns. Reports say one seller in Phuentsholing can sell alcohol worth Nu 200,000 a day. That’s little over imagination. There are no regulations regarding how much a vendor can sell alcohol to one consumer.

Alcohol is common in Bhutan. It is an inevitable part of religious festivals and celebrations. The tradition of drinking is deep rooted in the Bhutanese culture.

The issue of increasing alcoholism was briefly discussed during the 85th session of the National Assembly (old). In that year, a report by World Health Organization revealed that Bhutan has the highest alcohol consumption figures in the South Asia region. No concrete steps were taken to control its spread. Interesting, despite realising negative impact of alcohol in the society, government remain silent over increasing alcohol sells. The recent assembly discussions on the issue ended with members admitting that while existing rules on alcohol control was adequate, it failed to reduce the number of alcohol liver diseases and deaths because authorities failed when it came to implementing them.

Between July 2003 and June 2004, the department recorded about 63,000 cases of liquor was supplied to the numerous liquor outlets in the capital. The supply increased to more than 67,000 cases between July 2005 and June 2006.

BBC reported that, government officials agreed that alcohol is one of the biggest killers of adults in Bhutan.

According to Dr Chencho Dorji in Thimphu referral hospital, 30% of deaths in all hospital wards are due to alcoholism. Very few succeed in giving up alcohol.

According to Kuensel, the government is drafting regulation to control the alcohol sells, which is not compatible with the government initiative to issue more licenses for its sell.

The draft alcohol control regulation, prepared by Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, aims to reduce alcohol consumption through price control and distribution measures. A domestic alcohol manufacturer will have to pay Nu 500,000 annually as license renewal fee for alcohol production. Foreigners looking for Bhutan market will have to pay additional Nu 300,000 on top of Nu 500,000.

The draft regulation says that individuals and business firms will not be allowed to serve alcoholic beverages at their hotels, clubs, restaurants and parties without a licence.

Army Welfare Project produces 4M litres of liquor yearly, while Bhutan imported alcohol worth Nu 448M a year. Bhutan also imported beer worth Nu 5.4M from third country, while beer import from India was Nu 314M last year.

If tobacco sales, which hardly bring revenue to the government, are difficult to ban, alcohol that brings in millions for the national exchequer may be even harder at policy level.

I think, an alcohol guide from Australian government will be beneficial for Bhutanese policy makers when it comes to the alcohol.