In the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown India implemented an alcohol sales ban. Along with lockdown relaxation on May 4 alcohol sales for selected outlets were re-instated. What resulted was a disastrous situation with people overcrowding alcohol outlets and ignoring health measures, thus creating breeding grounds for coronavirus infections. State governments had to act fast and re-close some outlets. Alcohol tax increases were also used as a method to dissipate crowds.
Exploiting the situation to their benefit, the alcohol industry started lobbying for expanding Indian alcohol sales to the e-commerce market, citing the overcrowding incidents.
It is absurd that the alcohol industry claims to want to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by employing online alcohol sales and thus increasing alcohol availability. The World Health Organization has advised to improve alcohol availability regulations during the pandemic because alcohol weakens the immune system, making people more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and disease complications. The contradiction shows that the alcohol industry really pursues profit maximization even during a public health crisis; they are in fact exploiting the pandemic to weaken and undermine alcohol policy solutions.
Big Alcohol thirst for e-commerce expansion in India
India is the world’s second largest liquor consumer. Already, alcohol consumption is high among alcohol users leading to a heavy alcohol burden in the country. In 2017, alcohol was responsible for more than 580,000 deaths in India, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study.
A modelling study found that economically India loses 1.45% of its GDP due to alcohol. This is more than the country’s entire health spending which is 1.28% of its GDP.
Despite this harm some Indian states have decided to make alcohol more available through online sales and on-demand delivery. Currently there is no uniformity in the policy approach and different states are using different methods. These include,
- Online purchase and issuing e-tokens for pick up,
- Online purchase and home delivery through the alcohol outlet, or
- Online purchase and home delivery through a third party delivery platform.
As IWSR report, the alcohol industry is thirsting for alcohol e-commerce specialists to develop in India just like in the United States. These “specialists” will be driving higher alcohol consumption through targeted marketing to make sure large orders are repeated specifically in the Indian context. The industry is not even hiding the fact that increasing heavy alcohol consumption is their goal.
Driving online alcohol sales is very much led by the content provided by brands. A brand’s investment in product descriptions, graphics, and crucially, online storytelling, has driven the most success in standing above the competition online,” said Alastair Smith, Director at the IWSR.Alastair Smith, Director, IWSR
Already Bg Alcohol has singled out that the middle- and upper- class consumers as the target and what products to market to this audience, including whiskey, brandy and rum.
But the United States is a bad example. Experience shows that Big Alcohol is using the COVID-19 pandemic to weaken existing alcohol policy solutions. On-demand alcohol delivery apps are also found to fuel alcohol harm, such as in California where online alcohol retail and delivery puts youth in alcohol harm’s way.
Alcohol harm disaster waiting to happen
On top of pervasive alcohol harm India does not have a national alcohol policy system in place. Instead alcohol policy solutions depend on state governments. These state governments have an unhealthy dependence on alcohol industry revenue.
Even though alcohol costs the economy of India more than any revenue it generates the state governments think of alcohol as a revenue generating product. This thinking leads to alcohol policy-making such as excise alcohol taxation being centered around revenue instead of public health.
In the current context, e-commerce of alcohol will only increase alcohol harm because the state governments have misplaced priorities. These governments want to increase availability so they can earn more revenue.
Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Kenya, have experienced an increase in alcohol consumption and harm due to online alcohol sale and on-demand delivery. Due to the lack of reliability of online purchase and delivery methods in verifying the age of a customer and whether a person is intoxicated, alcohol has been accessed by minors, those with alcohol problems and those who are already heavily intoxicated.
Urgent national policy action to tackle alcohol harm is needed to avert this disaster that is waiting to happen.