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No ban on bar licence once alcohol harm reduction policy is ready

This is according to the Economic Affairs Minister

The lifting of the ban on bar licence would come along with the alcohol harm reduction policy, said Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma.

The minister said the economic affairs ministry has submitted the issue of the lifting the ban on bar licence to the government and the government has asked the taskforce to come up with the alcohol harm reduction policy.

The National Policy and Strategic Framework to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol, 2015-2020 approved by the 90th session of the Lhengye Zhungtshog (Cabinet) in December 2015 expired on December 31, 2020. 

“After the policy expires, legally we do not have a document to restrict bar licence,” said Lyonpo, adding that there is a need for the policy to have a control side like tobacco. 

Additionally, he said the policy is being developed by the taskforce and it would be submitted sooner.

“If we relax the moratorium on the bar license, how do we relax, who will get and who will not and what will be the new conditions will be addressed in the policy,” said Lyonpo, adding that the government, however, wants to control the excessive consumption of alcohol. 

Lifting the ban on the bar licence together with the policy would be better rather than lifting the moratorium on bar licence and bringing the policy later, said Lyonpo. 

Lyonpo added that discussions are still underway to standardise the bar as some grocery shops and general shops have bars and bars should be a standard place where people can relax,  sit and drink. 

In an earlier interview, Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said despite having a moratorium on stand-alone bar licenses since 2010, standard restaurants of hotels and tourists were being issued licenses, and looking at the figure, more than 1,000 bar licenses were issued after the moratorium. 

Additionally, the minister said many bar licenses could not be renewed after 2010 or after the moratorium was imposed as non-renewing for six months is treated as cancelled, and the moratorium does not allow new bar licenses, resulting in a plethora of appeals and increased illegal selling. 

Lyonpo said the ban on bar licenses is impractical because around 200 shops in Thimphu are operating without bar licences. 

However, the minister said no action could be taken although they are caught during inspection because they are operating without a licence. It is more damaging to the sellers selling alcohol and buyers drinking in hiding. 

“It could also lead to adulteration of the alcohol to keep the price competitive,” Lyonpo added. 

According to the minister, some entertainment centers are operating by hiring others’ licenses that lead to extra cost for paying house rents as well as hiring charges. Those having bar licences are taking situational advantage without operating themselves and with the lifting of bar licence the practice would not exist.

Meanwhile, the hiring of bar licence became illegal with the amendment of the Penal Code of Bhutan last year. Section 284 (g) of the penal code defines hiring of licenses between Bhutanese as fronting. 

As per the section, while conviction for the first violation is a petty misdemeanor, conviction for a second violation would lead to cancellation of the bar license. 

The Ministry of Economic Affairs notified on July 16 that any cases of fronting activities detected after December 2021 would be dealt with as per the law. 

As per the Ministry of Economic Affairs, there are 4,253 bars, 598 retail liquor shops, and 195 liquor wholesalers in the country.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu