Spike in drinking habits among youth, a concern

Dateline: New Delhi

Till a few years ago, if you had to buy a bottle of whiskey or vodka or rum for the evening, you needed to know the location of what's known as theka in most parts of the country.

Barring a few exceptions, most of these liquor shops across the country were shady places hidden behind iron grilles. One had to deal with long queues, several drunkards and jostle with many others to grab the prize catch. Women were never seen at these joints, customers get barely any time to choose a specific brand and bills were unheard of.

With changing times, liquor shops have now found their place in glass and granite shopping malls in urban India. Now commercial outlets offer walk-through passages for the customers to pick up a brand of choice. There are dedicated outlets for women and computerised bills are handed out to the customers. The alcohol business has come out of age, resulting into an increased consumer base, which is growing steadily.

According to a 2012 report from Nimhans, 30%-35% of adult men and approximately 5% of adult women consume alcohol in India. Alcohol use is relatively high in the north eastern and southern states, compared to other parts of country. The report suggests India has nearly 70 million alcohol users which include 12 million users who are dependent on alcohol, but does not include millions of social drinkers.

If reviewed, these figures would surely move upwards as the trend from the National Family Health Survey-4 suggests. India's biggest public health survey that collects data from about 5,70,000 households has found that in 10 states, Karnataka included, the number of drinkers, mostly male, have gone up in the last 10 years. Others in that list include Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Goa, Telengana, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Tripura. In many others, the numbers remain more or less unchanged.

Alcohol has increasingly become an important commodity in India’s emerging economy. It’s growing popularity, however, cannot hide its dark underbelly – alcohol is one of the prominent causes of adverse public health consequences.

It has been observed that between 1990 and 2010, alcohol use escalated from the sixth leading risk factor to the third leading risk factor in the global burden of disease index. As a leading risk factor, it rose to the third spot from fourth among the males while for females its position rose to the eighth spot from a notch below.

Hazardous habits like binge drinking and solitary consumption to the point of intoxication has become the hallmark of Indian alcohol consumption in the country and is practised by more than half of the drinkers. Brown spirits like whisky and rum which have high alcohol content (over 40% v/v)are the most preferred beverages.

Red-flagging the habit's dangerous consequences, public health experts now seek stringent regulatory measures as current controls on alcohol marketing are unable to protect the young Indians from hitting the bottle. They said liquor industry’s self-regulatory codes didn't protect the children and adolescents to the extent they should.

In a series of recent reports published in the journal Addiction, several public health experts asked the governments to strengthen the rules on alcohol marketing with more effective independent statutory regulations.

“No other legal product with such potential for harm is as widely promoted and advertised in the world as alcohol. Governments have previously approved self-regulatory measures on alcohol advertising; however, we can no longer say that they might work to protect our young people – they don’t. In a literature review of more than 100 studies, none was identified that supported the effectiveness of industry self-regulation programmes,” said Chris Brookes from UK Health Forum, one of the lead authors of these reports.

Alcohol marketing

The most serious concern is increasing alcohol consumption among the youth. As many as 12 studies, ranging from a duration of nine months to eight years, by public health researchers, have established that higher alcohol consumption among youth and earlier initiation are linked to alcohol marketing. The trend is similar in Europe, Asia and North America.

“Young people who have greater exposure to alcohol marketing appear to be more likely subsequently to initiate alcohol use and engage in binge and hazardous drinking,” said David Jernigan, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA.

India allows only surrogate advertising. Despite the consumption trends being on the rise, the existing policy's failure. A 2012 Public Health Foundation of India study showed prevalence of alcohol use increased from 2% to more than 14% among youth under 21 years in the last 15 years. “We need a national policy on alcohol if we have to achieve our target of 10% reduction in alcohol consumption by 2030 as surrogate advertisements are on the rise,” Monika Arora, Director, Health Promotions, Public Health Foundation of India, told DH.

Almost three years ago, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare created a technical review group to formulate a national alcohol control policy. The panel met thrice and finally came up with a White Paper, based on which the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was entrusted with the responsibility of framing the policy. This led to formation of another panel, which met for the first time about five months ago. No draft policy has been released in the public domain so far. The slow bureaucratic actions are in sharp contrast with the global public health experts, who appeal to the government for quick actions.

The public health experts suggest measures ranging from a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, promotion and sponsorship to enforcing the regulations by an appropriate public health agency. With the spirit industry significantly contributing to the coffer, it remains to be seen how many steps the NDA government takes to protect the health of the youth.
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