Earlier this month, the ruling dispensation faced a gaffe of sorts when State Prohibition and Excise Minister V Senthilbalaji asked how he could be held responsible for school students consuming liquor. The question of alcoholism and the demand for prohibition made to consecutive regimes have been a mainstay of State politics for many decades. Tamil Nadu, which was the first State in India to enforce a liquor ban in the late 1940s is caught between the devil and deep sea.
On one hand, not a month passes by without citizens’ groups protesting against the opening of a new TASMAC outlet, or against the behaviour exhibited by tipplers frequenting such joints. On the other hand, the government-run liquor shops raked in nothing less than Rs 36,000 cr in total liquor sales in the year 2021-22.
But there is a price to be paid for nurturing such enterprises, whose impact is felt not just in Tamil Nadu, but across India. Alcohol consumption in the country has spiked to dangerous levels over the past few decades. Per the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS), nearly one in every five men above the age of 15 consume alcohol. In States like Arunachal Pradesh, that number shoots up to 1 in every 2 men. The issue is more rampant in rural areas as compared to urban regions.
A recent modelling study has also shown that deaths attributable to alcohol between 2011-2050 could set India back by 258 mn life years as well as 1.45% of the GDP annually. The health implications of that occasional drink have taken a dark turn as the International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorised alcohol as a group 1 carcinogen. As much as 45% of all liver cancers reported in Europe today have been zeroed in on alcohol. The intoxicant is also the primary cause of cirrhosis in India.
If that weren’t enough, a research article published in the Indian Journal of Gastroenterology pegged the total number of estimated deaths due to alcohol-associated liver disease (AALD) in the NCR-Delhi for a one year period from March 2017, to 8,367. The total cost of treating these patients was estimated to be Rs 92.94 billion, which is twice as much as the total excise revenue generated by the government from the sale of alcohol — which is Rs 43.10 bn.
The Supreme Court verdict on privacy recognises the ability of an adult to control vital aspects of his or her life, which includes the choice to indulge in alcohol or not. But it’s essential that such temptations are kept out of the reach of underage individuals. Hence, there is a need for regulatory public health policies across all levels when it comes to the question of liquor sales. Ironically, here in Tamil Nadu, the government claims it has awareness programmes planned as part of the Prohibition and Excise department’s initiative to educate people against alcoholism. A sum of Rs 5 crore has been set aside for anti-liquor awareness activities, in the form of rallies, camps, street plays, short film competitions and pamphlet distribution. But these programmes never see the light of the day. In all fairness, these exercises are the equivalent of graphic warnings depicted on cigarette packs that warn users from smoking them. For now, the State’s administrators seem gridlocked in a ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’ scenario.