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Why Prevention Is Better Than Prohibition

04/01/2016 8:33 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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New Delhi, INDIA: An Indian sales assistant arranges bottles of foreign wines and spirits on shelves at a liquor shop in New Delhi, 18 July 2007. Cheer over India's move to axe extra duties on alcohol imports may be short-lived as levies by various Indian states could push the price of foreign wines and spirits to new highs, industry officials say. The European Union suspended its complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) about India's alcohol import tariffs after New Delhi said on July 5 it would reduce the duties. AFP PHOTO/Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

Prohibition is back in the limelight with the Supreme Court upholding the Kerala government's new liquor policy which bans drinking in public and restricts its serving to 5-star hotels.

The topic attracted recent attention when Nitish Kumar and Devendra Fadnavis fiddled with the idea of banning alcohol in their respective states. India's tryst with banning alcohol has had a dubious record which does not make a case for acceptance of this inferior policy. In the absence of a national policy on alcohol, states should focus on slew of measures that balance the negative externalities of alcohol consumption with its pragmatic benefits.

India's tryst with banning alcohol has had a dubious record which does not make a case for acceptance of this inferior policy.

India, despite a culture of abstinence, has seen a tectonic shift in patterns of alcohol consumption over the last few decades. Influenced by Gandhi's teachings, alcohol was banned in one-fourth of the country by 1954. However, today, Gujarat is the lone state with prohibition law and ironically with a per capita consumption of about 2 litre of alcohol. As per NSSO data (2011-12), the average consumption per year in rural India is 11.4 litres and 5 litres in urban India, lower than the world average. India happens to be one of the few countries where alcohol policy is made and implemented at state level.

The Indian Constitution in the Directive Principles of State Policy, which was cited by the honourable SC judges in the Kerala liquor policy ruling, mentions:

"...the state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health".

However it is only a stated goal and not legally enforceable. The proponents of prohibition cite numerous ill-effects of alcohol consumption with regards to the health (physical and psychological) of the drinker and those associated with him, financial distress and burden on an already fragile healthcare system among others.

That excessive alcohol consumption is a serious problem is an undeniable fact. In a PROFILE study done in Kerala it was found that risk of mortality and of cardiovascular disorders is significantly high in the age group of 20-44 year old alcohol-consuming males when compared with non-drinkers. One-fifth of all hospitalisations, 20% of all brain injuries and 60% of all injuries are attributed to alcohol. In a study done by NIMHANS, Bangalore, surveying 28,500 people it was found that people of lower economic strata spent more than their income on alcohol. When it comes to violence against women, one-third of all violent husbands have been found to be alcohol drinkers. A study in Karnataka even unticked the potential revenue generation claim of alcohol when it found that expenditure on various fallouts of alcohol consumption exceeded the income from it.

[P]rohibition leads to an underground economy, raises consumption of illicit liquor, creates a crucible for hooch deaths and makes an unscrupulous chain thrive...

Is prohibition then, panacea to all these ills? Certainly not. As explained by Nitin Pai, in his column, prohibition leads to an underground economy around it, raises consumption of illicit liquor (which incidentally normally accounts for 45-50% of total alcohol consumed), creates a crucible for hooch deaths, and makes an unscrupulous chain thrive along with a host of other evils. Even the often logical sounding step of raising taxes does not comprehensibly address the ills as alcohol is price inelastic, in that it has no bearing on people purchasing it, who will only spend more (with the poor facing greater economic hardships) for it.

In order to address what the courts have repeatedly called a "social evil", an effective alcohol policy should thus aim at:

1. Reduction of overall consumption by using population-based approaches

A part of revenue generated from alcohol, which typically is 15-20% of all revenue and second after sales tax for states, should be channelised for research and treatment. There is serious lack of quality data regarding alcohol in India and generation of such would help policymakers target the intended objectives.

2. Target high-risk individuals

About 4% of all alcoholics are high-risk individuals who have fragile health and pose a threat to their kith and kin. Targeting them and many others who migrate to that bracket requires effective running of the hundreds of detoxification and counselling centres that the government runs. With a one-time grant and a severe lack of trained professionals, this support system usually fails to fulfill its mandate.

3. Rigorous implementation of laws

Alcohol in a state with prohibition can be easily ordered over a phone call and is delivered at one's doorstep. It's a market with huge potential, even as India makes alcohol giants pursue unscrupulous marketing techniques and surrogate ads. The Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA), which officially ranges from 18 to 25 in various states, are flouted rampantly. A study in Bangalore found that up to 59% of accident injuries were related to alcohol. A strict implementation of these already existing provisions will go a long way in ensuring check in alcohol consumption.

The perils of alcohol are for real and need addressing in a comprehensive manner and not by populist stop-gap arrangements.

In a country where the youth lack a prescribed pattern of behaviour concerning alcohol consumption, where traditional social regulations pose a paradox to individual liberty, where more than 50% drinkers meet the "hazardous drinking" criteria and where drinking is predominantly to intoxication, disinhibition and violence, it is imperative for both government, mass media and civil society to help inculcate ideal code of conduct vis-à-vis drinking.

With economic liberalisation and increased disposable incomes, there are already tectonic shifts in alcohol consumption that require a nuanced strategy aimed at early age initiation into drinking. Since there is no national policy and states are free to implement their designs, prohibition is always an option on the table, often with a vote bank in view. This will only make murky water muddier. The perils of alcohol are for real and need addressing in a comprehensive manner and not by populist stop gap-arrangements.

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