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avoidable tragedy: spurious liquor
Avoidable Tragedy: Spurious Liquor

With more than half of all alcohol drinkers in India falling into the criteria for hazardous drinking, alcohol abuse is emerging as a major public-health problem in the country. The problem becomes more compounded especially where we find the urban poor and rural peasants flocking to the liquor shops with a 10 rupee note and buying death in a sachet as seen in the recent Calcutta tragedy India's reputation as a country with a culture of abstinence especially in matters regarding alcohol is underserved, say experts. The country, which has seen a rapid proliferation of city bars and nightclubs in recent years, is fast shedding its inhibitions about alcohol as a lifestyle choice.
This situation has led to fears of an undocumented rise in alcohol abuse not only among poorer classes but also in sections of society that were previously considered dry. The entire policy regarding the pricing and trading of state sponsored liquor outlets with singular aim of generating revenue needs to be questioned by concerned citizens. The increasing production, distribution, and promotion of alcohol have already seen drink-related problems emerging as a major public-health concern in India. Sales of alcohol have seen a growth rate of 8% in the past 3 years. Officially, Indians are still among the world's lowest consumers of alcohol—government statistics show only 21% of adult men and around 2% of women drink. But up to a fifth of this group—about 14 million people—are dependent drinkers requiring “help”.

The concern, say experts, is that there has been a rapid change in patterns and trends of alcohol use in India. Chief among them is people are beginning to drink at ever-younger ages. The percentage of the drinking population aged less than 21 years has increased from 2% to more than 14% in the past 15 years, according to studies in the southern state of Kerala by Alcohol and Drugs Information Centre India, a non-governmental organization (NGO). Alarmingly, the study found that the “average age of initiation” had dropped from 19 years to 13 years in the past two decades.
The centre points out that a “powerful international and domestic alcohol lobby” is purposely targeting young Indians. The local industry has introduced flavored alcohol drinks to attract previously non-drinking women and young men. Multinational companies have identified India with its vast unexploited markets as one of the worlds most sought after places for investment.
Many alcohol adverts now feature spirited groups of young people having a good time. Although alcohol advertising is banned in the electronic and print media, surrogate advertising is rife, “Drinking water and apple juice is packaged by alcohol companies. It's all about getting young people to start early and be life-long consumers. Bollywood films now glorify alcohol where the good guys drink.”
The shifting composition of Indian drinkers has seen a rise in the number of Indian women drinking regularly and heavily. One recent study in the southern state of Karnataka found young women consumed similar amounts of alcohol to young men on any typical drinking occasion.
What is of particular concern—and an important indicator of health risks—is that the signature pattern of alcohol consumption in India is frequent and heavy drinking. More than half of all drinkers fall into the criteria for hazardous drinking, which is characterized by bingeing and solitary consumption to the point of intoxication. Moreover, spirits account for 95% of the beverages drunk in India.
There is evidence even to suggest that the poor are beginning to drink more than they earn—a deadly spiral of alcohol and debt. Although the Indian constitution includes the prohibition of alcohol among its directive principles, alcohol policy is devolved to individual states—as is the levying of taxes on it. Since most states derive around a fifth of their revenue from alcohol taxation—the second largest source after sales tax—they are generally ambivalent towards stemming its flow. Moreover, there is a long history in India of a powerful alcohol lobby with industry figures influencing the political process, both in the form of party donations and as representatives. But experts argue that Indian society is losing considerably more than it gains.
According to a recent study by researchers from NIMHANS it is shocking to know that the direct and indirect costs attributable to alcohol addiction is more than triple the profits of alcohol taxation and several times more than the annual health budget of Karnataka. These included the tangible costs of health care, occupational, financial, social, and legal factors.
Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, an NGO aiming to prevent alcohol-related harm through evidence-based policy intervention, says that the key is to break the stranglehold of state revenue departments who see increasing consumption of alcohol as a boon to treasury coffers.
In less than a week after more than 90 women, men, and children died in a calamitous fire at the AMRI hospital in Kolkata, illicit brew has claimed the lives of about 150 people, at Sangrampur in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. The hooch was sold in sachets, priced between Rs.7 and Rs.20, virtually opposite a police post in the area. Starting with a couple of deaths early in the morning, the toll kept rising through the day and touched 80 by daybreak next day. Most of the victims complained of body pain, stomach cramps, vomiting, and a burning sensation. The recurrence of heart-rending tragedies caused by the killer brew only lends credence to the thinking among political parties and State governments that it might be better to introduce legal sale of licensed liquor than let addicts go for the illicit stuff. There is a demand from sections in government to suggest monopolizing sale of government controlled liquor as the Tamil Nadu Model .Of course the protagonist will feel that this step might be catastrophic. But the evidence from across India shows that prohibition just doesn't work; in fact, it brings on all sorts of ill effects, social as well as medical. Although States that still implement prohibition, full or partial, have set up separate wings in the police department to handle cases arising out of prohibition offences and illicit brewing, it is common knowledge that connivance between the brewers and sections of the police makes the hooch flow, particularly in festival season. Most, if not all, victims tend to be poor laborers, and the families end up paying a terrible price. Alcoholism is a social menace that needs to be tackled in a sensitive, intelligent, multi-pronged way. Driving it underground, to dangerous devices, is clearly not the way.

(Prof Gourishankar Patnaik is a senior Consultant in orthopedics based in Bhubaneswar. He can be contacted at

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