Need policy cocktail for alcohol control

Alcohol consumption in India is growing. Per-capita consumption of alcohol increased from 4.3 litres in 2010 to 5.9 litres in 2017, 50% of this being unrecorded or illicit consumption. Globally unrecorded alcohol consumption is stable at about 25%. Studies on India point to a significant share of hazardous drinking and alcohol dependence. Policy responses must recognise the drivers and nuances of alcohol consumption, both recorded and unrecorded.

Recorded production and consumption, taxed by states, comprises imports, Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) and domestic brews produced in licenced units. Unrecorded or illicit liquor includes home brews with high methanol content. Bihar‘s latest hooch tragedy is due to consumption of unrecorded alcohol in a state where prohibition has given the illicit production and trade a boost. Increasing the ambit of recorded alcohol, as proposed in Punjab, will benefit the state’s treasury even as it doesn’t address the real problem. States must stop treating alcohol as a cash cow – it generates 15-20% revenue from taxes. Illicit alcohol proliferates due to higher affordability, the clientele mostly not well-off. Policy must factor in that unrecorded alcohol is not homogenous; each class of alcohol has a different set of drivers and impacts. It needs a regional approach as alcohol-control policies in one state will affect bordering states and countries.

There is no silver bullet to minimising harm from alcohol. Multidimensional causality leading to growing demand requires a portfolio of measures to moderate drivers of alcohol consumption. It requires nuanced policies using all levers – awareness, disincentives, incentives, taxation – enabling people to have a healthier life and consumption of alcohol.

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