Anti-liquor campaigns are driven by fear-mongering, devoid of reason, high on rhetoric, low on sensibility and most importantly, disrespect individual choice and freedoms.

Wake up and smell the booze Nitish Kumar prohibition is not a solution
Voices Opinion Friday, November 27, 2015 - 11:40

After Kerala and Tamil Nadu recently, it is Bihar which seems to have got the liquor prohibition bug. But the Bihar Chief Minister, fresh from his thumping victory in the recent assembly polls, seems to have gone straight for the jugular. No debate, no discussion and no phased-prohibition. From April 2016, sale of liquor will be banned in all of Bihar. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Nitish's most vocal opponents, the BJP have supported the move. After all, their model state Gujarat does run dry, at least on paper.

The issue of alcohol-prohibition today has all the signs of typical high-decibel political campaigns – it is driven by fear-mongering, devoid of reason, high on rhetoric, low on sensibility and most importantly, disrespects individual choice and freedoms. The clear and present danger could be that the paranoia, politicisation and pitilessness of these anti-liquor campaigns have reached a point of no return.

Amidst all of this, do we have the patience to stop, think and ask, what is the real problem? What is the solution? Can complete prohibition be achieved? Is that really the solution? And if not, then what is? At the outset let’s state that no sensible person familiar with ground reality in these states can deny that alcoholism is a real problem. Men are dying, women are being overburdened and orphaned kids being led into a crime spiral.

So while there is no denying that there is a problem, the question really is – what is the solution. What we need to understand first is this: Alcoholism is the problem, not alcohol. It is not the mere availability of liquor which is destroying families. It is how cheap and freely it is available. The problem is that often governments, with an eye on filling its coffers, have been actively encouraging alcohol consumption by meddling with a market which could have otherwise kept the consumption stable. There is a lack of social awareness and rehabilitation for those who are addicted.

As the state encouraged alcohol consumption, it didn’t bother to stop and look if people were doing so responsibly. And now, faced with a situation where a society on the brink of collapse is fighting back to survive, politicians are turning the tables and calling for a complete ban on liquor. Here is what we can state with certainty: alcohol prohibition will not work.

I’ll say it again: alcohol prohibition will not work.

In case you didn’t get it: ALCOHOL PROHIBITION WILL NOT WORK.

An analysis by the World Health Organization to study the role of socioeconomic markers and state prohibition policy in predicting alcohol consumption among Indian men and women stated, “Prohibition policies appear to have little effect on alcohol use by men, but may reduce the proportion of women who consume alcohol.” It states that there is lack of statistical evidence to support the notion that state-level prohibitionist policies are an effective means of reducing the prevalence of alcohol consumption among men.

Please note that this was an India-specific analysis. In the exhaustive Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 by the WHO, which includes a long list of solutions to control alcoholism, not once has prohibition been mentioned as a viable option. In fact, WHO’s Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol states that “restrictions on availability that are too strict may promote the development of a parallel illicit market.” It means that if you impose prohibition, people could drink illicit liquor from the black market and die.

An oft repeated example of the failure of prohibition is the case of the United States of America, which prohibited the sale of alcohol between 1920 and 1933. An analysis by the Cato Institute argues that prohibition need not have improved the health of Americans, did not have a significant impact on the levels of alcohol consumption in the long run, increased the prevalence of crime and encouraged corruption. Speaking about his 2010 book Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition, journalist and author Daniel Okrent argues that in America, prohibition “deprived the government of needed revenue, fostered and created organised crime, undermined respect for the law, and killed thousands of people." He also points out, as cautioned by the WHO as well, that prohibition would encourage the poor to consume illicit liquor thereby risking their lives. Why look to the US? Bihar’s own experience with prohibition has not been too kind on the lives of the poor. The state tried to implement this in 1977-78, only to fail.

An enlightening report on Frontline from 2002 on Tamil Nadu shows that often when the government placed extreme restrictions on the sale of liquor or even toddy and arrack, the number of deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor went up. In fact, it was because of the tragic deaths due to consumption of methanol that forced the government to allow the sale of low-priced liquor. The problem is that the state went on a rampage by selling alcohol through TASMAC shops having understood the immense profitability of the sector. The case of Attapadi in Kerala also goes to show how prohibition does not really solve alcoholism.

The worst aspect of the shrill calls for ban is that they are walking all over my individual freedom and choice. It is sad that when the states in the US have been mature enough decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana, we are still stuck with the alcohol debate.

What is the solution then? At a fundamental level, it is to understand that there is no magic wand, and that reducing alcohol consumption after decades of governments creating an environment which drives up alcohol sales requires patience.

Secondly, alcoholism is a socioeconomic problem. As a WHO study shows, men who are poorer and less-educated tend to consume more alcohol in India. Among women, the consumption is high in women who are either too poor or too rich. The study also finds that caste can have a bearing on the levels of consumption of alcohol. So, the government of Tamil Nadu should work towards improving the standard of living of the poor – which means we need more economic growth and consecutive redistribution of wealth.

Correspondingly, the poor have to be given increased education opportunities and made aware of the ill-effects of alcohol at an early stage. And if one has to go by the WHO study, it should reduce the influence of caste in our lives, something we know political parties in Bihar are terrible at. The most comprehensive list of policy options and interventions is in the WHO strategy report.

1. Strong political will, leadership and commitment – politicians cannot call for prohibition and then encourage cronies to run distilleries or illicit liquor business. The hypocrisy must die.

2. Health services should be improved – awareness must be created on the health consequences, prevention must be focussed on, and the system should be equipped in dealing with addiction and alcohol-abuse.

3. Community action – something which is already happening in Tamil Nadu, but could do with more help from the government; self-help groups and NGOs must be supported to create awareness and monitor society.

4. Strong action against driving under the influence of alcohol

5. Regulation of the sale of alcohol through licensing policies, capping the number of outlets, regulating sale-time and other such measures (but NOT an outright ban)

6. Ban on mass marketing of and advertising for alcoholic beverages, especially towards the younger demographic

7. Pricing policies - to make alcohol more expensive, but not too expensive, through taxation. However, this must be coupled with efforts to curb the illicit trade, and here are some lessons from Kerala on that

8. Reducing the negative consequences of intoxication, like controlling bar fights, maintain law and order and helping out severely intoxicated people

9. Continuous monitoring and surveillance of sale of alcohol. We need leaders who are more responsible, strengthen advocacy, partner with NGOs and look for evidence-based policy options instead of outdated solutions. Alcohol is not the enemy, it is socioeconomic conditions which drive people to abuse alcohol which we must tackle.  

This article has been altered and republished from its earlier version here.

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