Liquor Policy: State Obligation to Hold Alcoholics Close to Their Heart
Dr Sreeram Venkitaraman, an IAS
officer who has a post graduate degree in medicine and fellowship in Public
Health, knocked down a young journalist K Muhammed Basheer of Malayalam daily
Siraj in Thiruvananthapuram city in early August last year. Dr Sreeram was
allegedly drunk but his blood sample was taken nine hours after the incident
and that did not reveal any alcohol content. He was reinstated into service
recently which also generated as much controversy as the accident itself. This writer was once a victim of drunken
driving by an autorickshaw driver in Thiruvananthapuram-Nedumangad road as he
slammed against our Maruti Alto.
However, the immediate provocation to write about alcoholism was an article by Rahul V Kumar (Centre for Public Policy Research) published in their website titled COVID-19: A Time to Rethink Kerala's Liquor Policy. It calls for a rethink of the excessive government dependence on liquor distribution and sales to shore up its income and calls for a competitive environment that provides quality and affordable liquor to people. Rahul V Kumar was also kind enough to share a research paper of CPPR on the backward linkages liquor industry has with the commodity sector (links given at end of article). Since, I couldn't agree with some of the views raised in both the articles, I thought of putting forth liquor as a commodity from the perspective of a former commodity-business journalist and also from the perspective of a continuing student of Economics.
Liquor as a Commodity
In India, liquor has always been a sensitive subject. In Gujarat where prohibition is in force because it is the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, those who need to have a small or large gulp can still get it sneaked from the borders. Kerala has also witnessed several liquor tragedies in the past and arrack was banned when A K Antony was the Chief Minister of the State. Certain commissions appointed by the State had recommended phased ban of all kinds of liquor. There has been a silent but strong anti-liquor movement in the State for past several decades but not powerful enough to influence public policy.
Liquor as a commodity is different from other commodities. It is intoxicating and habit forming although in small quantities it is supposed to be healthy for the heart. But excessive consumption can lead to heart, liver, kidney damage and even impairment of cognitive functions. It can also lead to social issues such as drunken driving which is a threat to one's life as well as that of several others. It can also put the financial resources of families under severe strain especially if the alcoholic in the family is the sole bread earner.
There are several backward linkages in this sector from an industry point of view right from distilleries, molasses, sugar makers, farmers who constitute a large majority of the population in North, West and Central India. State Government's also are major players both as regulators and distributors of various types of liquor.
Over the years, the government has taken several measures to warn the public about dangers of alcohol consumption. Movies now display the statutory warning message that 'alcohol consumption is injurious to health' when a drinking scene is shown on screen. All liquor bottles also contain this message and it is not to be sold to an individual below the age of 18. However, such restrictions haven't been enforced strictly in outlets as was exposed by a few TV channels in Kerala. They purposefully sent a few teenagers to buy liquor and they could easily secure it without any hassles. Liquor advertisements are still not allowed in the media and this gives rise to surrogacy advertising in which usually Club soda, mineral water are used to promote liquor brands.
It may be recalled that the makers of the Constitution were also aware of the dangers of uninhibited liquor consumption and in the Directive Principles of State Policy it has been stated that the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of alcohol except for medicinal purposes. But it is an irony that despite the objectives laid out in the Constitution, India has become the third largest market for liquor in the world with an estimated annual turnover of $35 bn. No wonder, the Kerala Government was keen to hold toddy (country liquor) auction even as the State had imposed regulations on social distancing and public gatherings ahead of total lockdown last month.
At the outset I had mentioned about how liquor as a commodity is different from other commodities that we consume in daily life. Two things that distinguish it from others is that it is 1) harmful for health and 2) intoxicating and habit forming. While thinking of raising more money through excise duties, taxes or exorbitant pricing, Government should think of the social and public health costs. Large number of people affected by liver, kidney, heart, neurological or psychological problems can lead to excessive pressure on our public health system which is already burdened with abnormal growth in non-communicable diseases due to other factors. The other is the strain on family resources with lesser money to spend on children's education, health and in the unfortunate event of untimely death of the individual, the trauma it generates in the family.
There are many critics against Government's pricing norms that peg the prices artificially high and this makes alcoholics go for cheaper, low quality brands. But it can also be a deterrent for drinking if seen in a positive way.
The Government has an obligation and responsibility to citizens who help raise resources for the government through liquor consumption. Hence, each drinker should be given a Health Card that stores all the information about his or her purchases, health status, work status and other relevant details of the individual. This will enable the government as a regulator to ensure that they don't buy beyond a particular quantity per day/week or on monthly basis and their health report card has to be updated quarterly or half-yearly preferably from a government hospital. Such cards can also be updated with any irresponsible behaviour such as drunken drivings, brawls in the street and other offences. Productivity related issues at work can be tackled in organisations and where required suitable interventions in the form of counselling or medical support or advice can be provided. A group insurance scheme paid for by the government from a small contribution from profits of liquor sales can be thought of which will help a family in the unfortunate event of a major ailment or even death. Such levy can also be collected from distilleries who are the major beneficiaries of liquor industry.
Social drinking enhances the status of individuals in certain settings especially business but it can be cause for taboo if someone ends up as a chronic alcoholic. It also brings shame to his or her family members too. The growth of de-addiction centres are a clear warning to government, legislators and public health officials about where the society is headed to unless curbs are imposed on liquor trade and consumption.
Classifying the Commodity
There are various types of commodities that we consume daily -some are perishable and have a short life, some others to be used and then discarded, still others to last a life time such as Gold, Silver, diamonds among others. Normal commodities follow the demand theory that more will be consumed at a lesser price and lesser will be consumed at a higher price. Then there is something called Giffen good whose consumption rises when prices rise and falls when prices fall. Good examples are the ones considered 'inferior' such as potato, bread, tapioca etc. Liquor defies all such classifications. It can be classified as 'intoxicants' which also includes drugs and hence defy all normal commodity market logics. But I agree with Rahul V Kumar in only one aspect of liquor industry- to understand its real supply-demand dynamics, it has to become a competitive market and not a regulated one!
These days Kerala Health Minister has said that she is holding all the health professionals, workers close to her heart in the fight against Covid-19. A staff nurse at Government Medical College said all the senior health officials were holding them close to their hearts as they fight it out day and night to drive away the epidemic. Once, all these troubles are over, the government as well needs to think of holding alcoholics close to their heart as they not only risk their health and family to keep the economy and government finances going but ends up scorned by society!