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Opinion | Is an alcohol ban necessary during the lockdown?

Several states and doctors would prefer a calibrated approach to liquor access rather than a complete ban on sale

People waiting for the liquor shop to open in Guwahati on 13 April
People waiting for the liquor shop to open in Guwahati on 13 April (Photo: Getty Images)

On 12 April, a video of a young man distributing free whisky to daily- wage workers in Hyderabad went viral on social media. The man, identified simply as Kumar, later told a news agency that he wanted to help out people suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. “Yesterday, I had noticed that a woman was suffering from convulsions due to alcohol (withdrawal)," he said. “I had a bottle at my residence. So I thought of distributing pegs to such people (addicts)."

The man, who was subsequently detained by the police, has been variously described as “crazy", “fame-hungry" and “dev maanush" (godsent) by social media users. But his act seems to have sparked a debate on the pros and cons of a complete ban on liquor sales.

Since 25 March, when the nationwide lockdown came into effect, liquor sale has come to a halt. Guidelines issued by the Union ministry of home affairs on 14 April to gradually and selectively ease the lockdown recommended continuation of the “strict ban" on liquor sale. According to a 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) report, excessive alcohol consumption kills around 260,000 in India every year.

India is among a handful of countries, including Thailand and South Africa, that has stopped alcohol sales while imposing a nationwide lockdown. Many in the West have not. New York, a city which has been reeling under covid-19, includes wine and spirits stores in the list of “essential" businesses. Supermarkets across several European countries have, in fact, reported a spike in liquor sales, prompting WHO to voice concern.

A supporter of the Bihar government’s anti-liquor campaign in 2017.
A supporter of the Bihar government’s anti-liquor campaign in 2017. (Photo: Getty Images)

On 14 April, WHO’s regional office for Europe called for restrictions on alcohol access during the lockdown. “At times of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption can exacerbate health vulnerability, risk-taking behaviours, mental health issues and violence," it said in a press note.

In India, alcoholic beverages are classified as “food" under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. The lockdown, however, has seen liquor vends closed, with the “wine-cellars" in grocery stores stocking alcohol also off limits.

As the country completes what is possibly its first dry month, the unavailability of liquor has had two major repercussions: on health and government revenue.

First, the condition of addicts. Nearly 57 million Indians are addicted to alcohol, according to a 2019 study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims). Acute withdrawal symptoms can manifest as seizures, delirium and aggressive behaviour, and can even be fatal. In the first week of the lockdown, nine people in Kerala who were reportedly addicted to liquor committed suicide. By the second week, six in Tamil Nadu had died after trying to substitute alcohol with after-shaves and varnish. Media reports suggest production of home-made liquor like rice beer or toddy has increased in rural areas while a grey market for bottled liquor has mushroomed in urban areas. Some of them add that bottled alcohol is being sold at twice its rate in parts of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.

Two, states have lost a large chunk of revenue. The alcoholic beverage industry accounts for 15-30% of liquor-selling states’ earnings, according to the International Spirits & Wine Association of India (Iswai), which represents some of the country’s largest liquor manufacturers. In 2019-20, Iswai claims, the states earned 2.5 trillion in taxes from alcohol sales. In their efforts to get the states to ease restrictions, industry stakeholders argue liquor tax money can be used to fight the pandemic.

Narayan Manepally, founder of the Bengaluru-based Geist, a brewery that supplies to over 100 restaurants and pubs in the city, says extending the ban on liquor sales only suggests the government doesn’t trust its people to drink responsibly. “In many parts, you see people drinking too much, beating up their wives. But the acts of few have corrupted the perception of many," he says. Last week, the National Commission for Women (NCW) said it had received 587 complaints of domestic violence since the lockdown started, far more than the 396 complaints it had received in the previous 25 days.

Successive governments have treated their products as taboo, adds Manepally, despite the liquor industry being one of the biggest revenue generators. In many states, he points out, the regulatory department is called the “prohibition and excise department". The Constitution’s directive principles state: “...the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health".

“If I am locked in the house all day, I could sure use a glass of beer," argues Manepally. “It’s good for your sanity."

“It’s to do with the optics as well," says Samar Singh Shekhawat, an independent consultant and former chief marketing officer of United Breweries, which manufactures Kingfisher beer. “How can they allow it to be sold when they can’t ensure food and the rest? It can easily become an opposition agenda."

But doing away with alcohol altogether would prove too costly for the economy, adds Shekhawat. “With zero turnover, the industry stares at a loss of 30,000-40,000 crore, not to discount loss of jobs in manufacturing units, transportation, distribution and retail...." While exact employment figures are not available, Shobhan Roy, chief of the All India Brewers Association, told The Times Of India earlier this month that the industry employs nearly a million people.

Some states have started feeling the pinch. By the third week of April, West Bengal, Karnataka and Delhi were reportedly considering “partial loosening" of alcohol curbs for immediate revenue generation, some by allowing home delivery. From 13 April, Assam and Meghalaya allowed liquor shops to sell for a few hours every day, although Assam rescinded its decision shortly after the Union government directive. On 20 April, Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope too said alcohol shops should be kept open if social distancing norms are followed.

Pratima Murthy, professor at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans), Bengaluru, says that while she can understand the rationale of the alcohol ban during the lockdown, she believes it could have been done differently. “Before you announce a ban like this, you must inform people in advance. More importantly, enough services should be made available to give the (addicts) treatment," she says. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown with 4-hour notice. “It took everyone by surprise."

Nimhans has seen twice the number of people seeking treatment for addiction in the past few weeks, with nearly 25 people turning up in the emergency ward every day. “Alcohol dependence is a disease," says Dr Murthy. “But unless people know that there is a treatment available, and it is close by, it can have unintended consequences."

Kerala is a prime example. Shortly after the suicides, the state government proposed easing restrictions and asked doctors to give prescriptions to addicts. But the Indian Medical Association’s (IMA’s) state chapter opposed it. The Kerala high court stepped in, ruling against relaxation.

Abraham Varghese, Kerala president of IMA, says alcohol-use prescriptions would be against ethical norms. “Any doctor who can prescribe alcohol can prescribe treatment as well," he says. “The medical fraternity was against it."

But though he opposed prescriptions, he adds he isn’t opposed to consumption. “What we had recommended is the closure of bars. In bars, one drinks in groups, shares food and glasses and sits close to each other. It’s counterproductive when the only way to control coronavirus is social distancing."

Liquor shops, says Dr Varghese, can be allowed to open with riders. “The Kerala government had allowed 3 litres of alcohol to be home-delivered for those with a liquor pass," he adds. “If the government can ensure such distribution, we are not against alcohol consumption during the lockdown."

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