India: Online Alcohol Retail Jeopardizes COVID-19 Fight
Big Alcohol lobby group The Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC) is pushing for online alcohol retail in India during the COVID-19 lockdown. If permitted, this measure would severely jeopardize the fight against the pandemic and undermine public health policy in the country.
As Movendi International previously reported, online alcohol retail and delivery is one main strategy used by Big Alcohol to keep pushing their products on people to safeguard their profits while the pandemic threatens lives. This strategy was first observed in high-income countries in the global north and appears to be deployed by multinational alcohol giants in the global south where online alcohol retail and delivery are often not legal.
The CIABC is posing an economic and livelihood argument for requesting online sale.
However, Dr. Monika Arora and Lawyer, Kashish Aneja discuss the grave implications of increasing availability of alcohol through online retail and advise the government to view the issue through a public health lens, specially during the current public health crisis.
Alcohol is a burden. The World Health Organization reports an annual 3 million deaths from alcohol. More than 2oo disease and injury conditions are linked to alcohol and the substance is a major risk factor for the growing Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) burden in the world.
In India, about 32% of the population consume alcohol, out of whom about half are heavy alcohol users. A worldwide analysis of heavy episodic alcohol consumption among current alcohol users (15+ years) places India in the 30-44.9% prevalence category.
India is already suffering due to their alcohol burden.
Research has found the cost of alcohol harm in the country is higher than the entire health spending. The economic loss from adverse effects of alcohol consumption is about 1.45% of the gross domestic product (GDP). For comparison, the government’s annual expenditure on health is about 1.1% of the GDP.
Even though Big Alcohol is using the economic argument, it is alcohol that causes a significant health and economic burden to the country. Research has found even after adjusting for tax receipts from the sale of alcohol, that alcohol poses a net economic loss of INR 97,895 billion (US$ 1506 billion).
Alcohol and COVID-19
Alcohol increases the susceptibility to the novel corona virus as well as increases risk of developing complications from the virus. Alcohol weakens the immune system and is linked with many diseases and specifically NCDs. India’s NCD burden has been rising over the years due to alcohol consumption. NCDs make people more susceptible to infections such as corona virus and also increase the severity of viruses. India is already witnessing the interaction of COVID-19 with NCDs including hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, kidney diseases and a variety of cancers.
Alcohol is also linked with violence, specifically domestic violence, which puts children and women at risk during the current lockdown due to the pandemic.
Therefore, alcohol increases the burden on the healthcare services, emergency services, law enforcement and drains society’s resources which are precious in the fight against COVID-19. This is why the WHO has advised governments to restrict access to alcohol and has advised people to avoid use of alcohol to protect themselves.
Allowing online alcohol retail will make alcohol more available, and increase heavy and binge alcohol use in the country. But any predictable strain of the healthcare system, such as through alcohol, should be avoided in order to strengthen systems in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legal obligations and commitments to safeguard people
Apart from the harm that alcohol causes, Dr. Monika Arora and lawyer Kashish Aneja also remind the government of their legal obligations and commitments made to safeguard public health, which will be in violation if online alcohol retail is permitted.
India is bound by their constitution to safeguard their citizen’s health. The Article 21 of the Indian constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court casts an obligation on the Government to preserve life and provide for adequate nutrition. Further, Article 47 is a Directive Principle that imposes on the State a primary duty to raise the level of nutrition, the standard of living and improve public health, and bring about prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health.
At the WHO Executive Board meeting in February 2020, India was among the 10 member States that proposed the draft decision to develop a global action plan to accelerate the implementation of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy. This shows India’s commitment to public health.
India is also bound by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and Article 3 of the International Health Regulations (IHR) that mandate the government to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to health of its citizens.
Alcohol is also linked with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Alcohol is an obstacle to achieving 14 of the 17 SDGs. The Indian government has adopted a National Target of achieving a 10% relative reduction in the prevalence of alcohol use by 2025.
Of the ten strategies recommended in the WHO’s Global Alcohol Strategy, one of the core interventions is to enact and enforce restrictions on the physical availability of alcoholic beverages. Due to cost-effectiveness of this strategy it is one of the WHO best buy policies to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.
Allowing for online alcohol retail goes against the national and international legal obligations and commitments the Indian government has made to safeguard their people and increase their quality of life.
Online alcohol retail and delivery – alcohol being a non-essential commodity – will be counterproductive to the national efforts of the Government of India undertaken to curb the spread of COVID-19 and can make the sacrifices made by Indian people and the damage to the economy meaningless.
To avoid a domino effect of increasing burden on the healthcare infrastructure, every government decision must be made with a public health lens that addresses underlying risk factors of other communicable and non-communicable diseases,” said Dr. Monika Arora Director and Professor of Health Promotion at Public Health Foundation of India, and Board member of the NCD Alliance, and Kashish Aneja, practicing lawyer and an international legal consultant at New Delhi, specialising in Global Health and Privacy Law, as per The Wire.