Does the government’s alcohol policy and licensing of new alcohol and beverage industries contradict each other?

Dechen Dolkar
from Thimphu

While the national policy and strategies framework to reduce harmful use of alcohol has been endorsed, on the contrary, the government has also been issuing new licenses for alcoholic beverages production in the country.
Of the 16 licensed breweries and distilleries in the country, seven licenses for small, medium and large alcohol industries were issued between December 2013 and April 2015. Of the seven, only one is operational so far. Others are yet start operation.
In addition, there are seven more proposals for alcoholic beverages industries – six for beer manufacturing and a spirit manufacturing – pending with the Department of Industry, Ministry of Economic Affairs.
According to a resolution passed by the 8th session of the first Parliament, manufacturing of alcoholic beverages would be allowed up to 8% of volume of alcohol content.
The Director of Department of Industry, Tandin Tshering, said as per the resolution of Parliament, the department has not issued any license for manufacturing and production of alcohol that contains more than 8% alcohol content.
Economic Affairs Minister Lekey Dorji said the government has rejected proposals that did not meet the criteria set by Parliament. “One of the Singaporean groups wanted to invest in manufacturing of whisky in the country exclusive for export only,” said Lyonpo Lekey Dorji. “However, the ministry had to reject the proposal because of the high percentage of alcohol content.”
Lyonpo Lekey Dorji also said that more than half of the manufactured beer in the country is exported.
Last year, beer worth Nu 1.43bn were exported to India while as of May this year Nu 644mn worth of beer were exported to India.
“The ministry will regulate the industry by ensuring that only the best quality liquor are manufactured in the country and that most of the products are exported to international market,” said the economic affairs minister.
The ministry, Lyonpo said, will also develop policies to monitor the establishment of new alcohol industries in the country and enforce restrictions on home brewed alcohol for commercial sale.
The government has also stopped issuing new bar licenses and retail liquor licenses. Although 7,132 bar licenses have been issued as of now, only about 4,350 are operational. “Many licenses have been cancelled for non-compliance,” said Lyonpo Lekey Dorji.
Meanwhile, health statistics show a gradual increase of alcohol liver disease (ALD) cases. In the last decade, 22,107 Bhutanese suffered from ALD. During the same period, around 1,435 Bhutanese succumbed to alcohol related diseases.
According to Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health released by the World Health Organization in 2011, the per capita adult pure alcohol consumption (8.47 liters) among Bhutanese is much more than the global consumption of 6.2 liters.
Health Minister Tandin Wangchuk said mortality and morbidity due to alcohol has been increasing every year. “Alcohol causes many diseases and research findings indicate that more than 200 medical conditions are caused by alcohol,” said Lyonpo.
A National Statistic Bureau research conducted in 2012 revealed that the government spent Nu 29-30mn for medication and treatment of alcohol and liver disease patients from 2005 to 2009.
The national policy and strategies framework to reduce harmful use of alcohol states the government will improve the implementation of the existing alcohol rules in all Dzongkhags and make the nation a safe and healthier place to live.
The policy aims to reduce morbidity and mortality from harmful use of alcohol by 50% by end of 2020 and reduce social problems from harmful use of alcohol by 5% by end of 2020.
Lyonpo Lekey Dorji said the alcohol policy does not ban alcohol but aims to reduce harmful use of alcohol in the country.
“The ministry will restrict the availability of alcohol at specific locations outlined in rules and regulations and prohibition of alcohol services to individuals below 18 years of age,” said Lyonpo Lekey Dorji.
He said that the ministry is strictly monitoring existing bar licenses for compliance, illegal sale of imported alcoholic beverages and illegal ownership of bar licenses. Further, the import of liquor is also taxed with 100% customs duty and 100% sales tax.
Health Minister Tandin Wangchuk said there will be review of alcohol taxes to reduce affordability of alcohol and propose revision and increase of duties, fines and penalties on alcohol beverages from time to time.
“There will be tax review on any product with alcohol content, especially sweet beverages with low alcohol content targeting younger groups,” said Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk.
The health ministry piloted community action to reduce harmful use of alcohol through community involvement in Lhuntse and Mongar with support from local governments, which is now expanded to six other dzongkhags of Trashigang, Samdrup Jongkhar, Pemagatshel, Trashiyangtse, Zhemgang and Sarpang as alcohol use is higher in these dzongkhags.