• Final Mile

Why Prohibition will not solve Kerala’s Alcoholism problem



Yet another government, this time the government of Kerala, is trying to solve the problem of alcoholism through the prohibition route. They have taken the first step in that direction by closing down all bars except the five star hotel bars across the state. Being a Malayalee I know that alcoholism is a big problem in my home state. Given the socialist past of our country we always look up to the state to take care of its citizen’s problems. So when a problem as intense as alcoholism spreads across the state, it is obviously seen as the state’s responsibility to find a solution to the problem. Many an astute politician has understood this and have used ‘finding solutions’ for the alcoholism problem as an excellent vote catching strategy, more so among the women voters. With elections just a few months away the politicians in Kerala too are not going to be any different.

Will closing down of bars or even total prohibition mitigate the alcoholism problem? Prohibition has failed across the world,  in several states in India including the erstwhile state of Travancore-Cochin. After 17 years of prohibition Mizoram has just given up the exercise and repelled prohibition in 2014. The new problems that prohibition creates is much more than the problem it tries to solve. So the fate of the prohibition that Kerala government  is planning to introduce is clear. Guaranteed failure in the long term. But that does not mean that the problem of alcoholism does not have any solutions nor that no one should attempt to find solutions for this problem that is destroying the very foundation of Kerala society.

The problem of alcoholism has been around for a long time. Both the Holy Bible and Quran exhorted their followers to keep away from the vice of alcoholism. Although both Christianity and Islam have very strong roots in Kerala, the exhortations of these holy books have fallen on deaf years. Kerala also had several social leaders like Narayana Guru who had taken a strong stand against alcohol consumption. Certain parts of Kerala were some of the first places in India to try out total prohibition. Despite all these efforts, the problem of alcoholism has only become bigger in Kerala. So alcoholism is not a simple problem that can be solved with band-aid like solutions. One needs to understand the complexities of the problem before trying to solve it, if not mitigate it.

The real problem is binge drinking

Based on alcohol consumption experts classify the population into an abstainer, someone who does not consume alcohol, a social drinker, someone who drinks occasionally that too in limited quantity, a binger, someone who is an abuser of alcohol, who drinks large quantity of alcohol per session very frequently and a dependent, a person who is alcohol dependent and is in the later stages of chronic alcoholism.

According to the World Health Organization’s global status report on alcohol and health, vast majority of Indians, 75% of men and 95% of women above the age of 15 abstain from alcohol consumption. So by doing a per capita consumption of alcohol calculation, the large number of abstainers in the country, the denominator of the calculation, help drastically diminish the intensity of the problem. But instead, if one does a per drinker consumption of alcohol, the magnitude of the alcoholism problem in India takes on gigantic proportions. The minority of men who drink, end up consuming on an average a whopping 32.1 litres of pure alcohol per year. This is more than double the alcohol consumption of a drinker in European countries where alcohol consumption is an integral part of their daily food habit. So the problem with alcoholism in India is that the minority who drink, drink far too much and/or consume drinks with high alcohol content. There is no data readily available on what percentage of Keralites consume alcohol. It might be safe to assume that like the rest of the country, in Kerala too the vast majority of the population are abstainers. A life time of observation will tell me that the real problem in Kerala, the booziest state in India, too is that those who drink, drink far too much. So the real problem we are facing and the one we need to solve is the problem of binge drinking.

Alcoholism – an Individual problem

All the problems in our society are not alike. A communicable disease such as tuberculosis spreads due to interaction between any member of a society. Whereas a problem like road accident occurs because of society’s interaction with just vehicle drivers. This interaction occurs only in a restricted public place, the roads. But a problem like marital infidelity is on the other end of the spectrum and mostly the result of an individual’s action almost always in a private place. Similarly, alcoholism is a problem that at best happens among a very small group of people, if not at an individual level, mostly in private places. To that extent alcoholism is more closer to a marital infidelity issue than a road accident problem.

Problem Map

The state has a significant role to play in solving problems that occur because of interaction between a large number of people from a society more so when the interaction is in the public arena. The role of the state diminishes as less and less people are involved in the problems and as the problems occur in more and more personal spaces. The state has very little to do with preventing problems that occur within the four walls of a house. It steps in only after the problem has occurred. So the prevention of problems that occur in personal spaces are best prevented by the individuals concerned.

Can the state really solve an individual problem?

State can effectively step in to solve a problem like road accident because the problem happens in the public place. But tackling alcoholism is different. Until recently lot of alcohol consumption in Kerala occurred in the bars. By banning the bars many of the ‘social drinkers’ might stop having their drinks and this might even reflect in the overall consumption figures in the state. Daniel Okrent, the author of the book ‘Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition’ says, “ We have an inability to legislate against human desire. If people want something badly enough and don’t consider it to be injurious to others, they will find a way to get it.”. The closing down of bars will not make any impact to the binge drinkers and the alcohol dependents. Even if there is an impact, it will only be in short term. New systems will emerge to compensate for the changes. After the banning of the bars in Kerala, liquor is available only through government run beverage corporation outlets. There are several bar goers who are uncomfortable buying from a beverage corporation outlet. But already a new system has emerged across Kerala where persons are willing to stand in the serpentine queues in front of the beverage corporation outlet for a fee and get you the liquor brand of your choice.

The stated objective of the government is to bring in total prohibition of liquor in Kerala. The leaders of anti-alcohol movements and religious leaders of Kerala will be very happy because all the signs of alcohol consumption in the public arena would have disappeared with that move. We will be fooling ourselves if we believe we have solved the alcoholism issue by cutting off its visible head. Any effort to tackle a problem that happens in a private space will make the problem to withdraw into more deeper private spaces. And the space may be so private that the state machinery will find it extremely difficult even to identify them, leave alone eradicate them. This is exactly what prohibition did to the manufacture and consumption of alcohol right from USA in the 1920s, to Mizoram in 2014. Strong underworld gangs with extensive powers start stepping into manufacture and distribution of alcohol. The consumption of alcohol too goes underground. There will now be no systems to manage the quality of alcohol. Close to 20% of Kerala government’s income comes from the sale of liquor. Now with prohibition, the government will be hard pressed to find resources to run the government system, including the excise and police force that is to take on the underworld that is now running the alcohol business. A hooch tragedy that might occur once in a while in places under prohibition is only the tip of a much larger problem that is now residing in the dark recesses of the society. So at any time, attempt of the state to tackle the problem of alcoholism by banning its public consumption will only worsen the situation.

Alcoholism is an individual problem. It should be handled at an individual level. Handling it at an individual level does not mean awareness building campaigns with headlines “Alcohol consumption is injurious to one’s health”. This type of communication is not going to solve the alcoholism problem in Kerala.

Does anyone believe that even a teenager who consumes alcohol does not know that it is bad habit?

To wean Kerala away from alcoholism is not going to be easy. It is going to take a long time. We need a system of solutions to handle this monstrous problem that has deep roots within Kerala society. The solutions can be under three broad approaches. They are:

1. De-glamorising binge drinking

For many a Malayalee getting tipsy is the endpoint of all drinking sessions. In many Malayalee drinking sessions finishing a glass of liquor in one gulp is a common scene. So the problem is not only that a Malayalee drinks too much but also that he does not know the graceful way of savouring a drink. He should be taught that the civilised way to drink is to drink in small sips and gulping down a drink is a sign on an uncivilised man. The societal machinery should soon start looking down on the habit of those who finish a drink in one gulp. This new social norm will go a long way in de-glamourising habit of excessive drinking and reducing the quantity of liquor consumed per session.

2) Increasing the social cost of alcoholism

In Kerala it is socially acceptable to drink alcohol at a public function, appear drunk in public or smell of alcohol. This should change. Alcoholism should have a social cost. Several studies have shown that cigarette smoking as a habit took a beating when it’s social consequences were played up. Anti smoking campaigns gained lot of traction when the glamourous, macho image attached with smoking gave way to the revulsion of a cigarette smelling smoker. Secondary smoking campaigns portrayed the smoker as a social outcast who is interfering with non-smoker’s right to breathe clean air.

Government should come down heavily on the public consequences of drinking. For example, the problem of drunken driving need to be dealt with far more severely. Accidents that happen because of driving under the influence of alcohol should be treated with far tougher punishment that what exists today. So the message should go out loud and clear that the larger society is averse to having any interaction with a drinker.

3) Increasing the emotional cost of alcoholism.

Parents are best role models in the growing up years of a child. A father who indulges in binge drinking and makes a fool of himself in parties should be reminded that he will lose the respect of his children. Those type of fathers will also lose the moral authority to tell his children not to indulge in any wrong doings including alcoholism. The problem of alcoholism can be solved to a large extent if more and more fathers develop an emotion of strong guilt around their drinking habits. As the emotion of guilt associated with alcoholism is increased, higher will be the tendency of a drinker to get out of this habit.

The same strategy applies in corporate life too. Respect one gains within an organization does not depend on one’s designations alone. It depends a great deal on how one carries himself while he is with his office colleagues. The boss who has had far too many drinks and falls into the hotel pool during an office party should know that he will find it very difficult to demand respect from his junior colleagues. Typical behaviours attached with excessive drinking – staggering steps and incoherent speaking should portrayed as public signs of a less civilised man. The fear that alcoholism has a huge emotional cost and that it could spoil one’s chances of being a model father, a respected office colleague can make many a person drink responsibly.

The fundamental problem that has plagued the anti alcoholism drive throughout the world is that alcoholism was seen as a social problem. So it has always been considered state’s responsibility to manage the problem. Governments across the world had only one solution – reduce the availability of alcohol. History reminds us that prohibition has not solved the alcoholism problem any where in the world. Alcoholism is an individual’s problem and it occurs in a personal space. So to solve the alcoholism problem, it is the individual who has to take the maximum responsibility. The state can at best facilitate that process. 

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