By Abhishek Jha:
Punjab Health Minister Surjit Kumar Jyani on Monday was quoted as saying that he does not consider alcohol an intoxicant because “the government gives licences for manufacturing liquor,” they auction liquor vends, and because “liquor is consumed in the Army” and also at parties. To make matters worse, the Minister made this statement after inaugurating a de-addiction centre.
NSSO’s 2011-12 consumption data shows that, on an average, per capita alcohol consumption in Punjab is 141mL per week for toddy and country liquor and 50 mL per week for beer, foreign liquor, and wine. With respect to other states and UTs, Punjab stands 15th in the toddy and country liquor category and 14th in the beer, foreign liquor, and wine category. With the state already ailing from a serious drug problem (the Narcotic Control Bureau said earlier this year that the state accounts for half of the total drug-related cases in the country), this endorsement of sorts from the Health Minister himself can only harm the state more.
Moreover, given that harmful use of alcohol has serious health impacts, the comment by Jyani shows little commitment or leadership by him towards his duties as the Health Minister. Since policy interventions are helpful in reducing harmful use of alcohol, the WHO too identified leadership, awareness, and commitment as important for the reduction in a Global Status Report On Alcohol and Health published in 2014. Regulation of endorsement and advertisement- both of which might get a boost by the Minister’s statement- is another preventive measure noted in the report. Harmful use of alcohol is a serious problem that the Minister needs to take cognisance of. In 2012 alone, the WHO report says, “about 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9% of all global deaths, were attributable to alcohol consumption.” Moreover, the report identifies harmful use of alcohol as a component cause of “more than 200 disease and injury conditions in individuals, most notably alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancers and injuries.”
Apart from committing a factual error in denying that alcohol is an intoxicant, stating that he had a different opinion about alcohol was against even the policies that the Minister is supposed to follow. The Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Vijay Sampla, for instance, had informed the parliament in April this year that India was the first country that adopted a national framework for prevention and control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) in line with the global framework. This global framework was endorsed by the World Health Assembly in May 2013 and had targets and indicators for each country and included a 5% relative reduction in alcohol use by 2020 and a 10% relative reduction by 2025 beginning from 2013.
Popular opinions and glamourising alcohol consumption is also a reason why young people take to alcohol. Drunken driving could be a fallout of this, despite being punishable under the Motor Vehicles Act, and the statistics for deaths due to drunken driving in India are alarming. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways told the Parliament in August this year, in response to a question, that drunken driving led to around 6,000 to 11,000 deaths country-wide every year between 2009 and 2013. There were also around 20,000 to 30,000 lakh accidents every year due to drunken driving between 2009 and 2013.
As a legislator and politician, Jyani can make and change opinions by his work and speech. As the Health Minister, he has even more of a mandate for driving opinion on alcohol and he should refrain from making such irresponsible statements.