That first sip of the strong smelling ice-cold drink of amber hues, lifts sagging spirits, uplifts the mood, and stress levels seem to recede, and the drinker, rushes to gulp it all down, followed by another and yet another. Such is the joy of consuming alcohol, be it beer, rum, whis- ky, wine or any other alcoholic beverage. It appears relaxing and pleasurable, since it soothes frayed nerves, helps push away lurking fears, and provides distractions from problems.
Yes, alcohol is fashionable, a bitter sweet nectar for the elite and poor alike, who would love to spend their evenings sipping one of the hundreds of brands available. We all serve it in our homes, pride ourselves at our varied collection of single malts and blended scotch, wine and cognac, and offer it with pride. The connoisseur would love to build his collection and each addition to his bar is considered to be a symbol of his good taste that at once fascinates and impresses his guests.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol is a highly toxic substance that con- tains ethanol, a substance produced from sugar that has been fermented with yeast. Its small molecules move rapidly in our system, getting absorbed in the gut, and reaching the brain quite fast. In its pur- est form, alcohol is colorless and odorless. Typically sugar found in fruits like grapes is fermented to make alcoholic beverages like
wine and sherry, though beer is made out of malted barley.
The Myanmar Story
Alcohol and its consumption in Myanmar has been prevalent since the earliest times. Both its rural and urban population con- sumes various alcoholic beverages which also include over-proof alcohol (not meant for human consumption). It is difficult to get exact numbers and percentages of al- cohol produced, imported and consumed, since a grey market flourishes, and illegally imported alcohol sells much more, of which no figures can be found.
Currently, Myanmar produces 250 million bottles of beer at its three breweries, of 640 ml each. This excludes other liquors. A large percentage of the produce is not record- ed since it includes brands that have not been registered to avoid taxes. Unlicensed sales take place all over the country. Add- ed to this is beer, wine and spirits that are regularly imported, some legally and a lot more that finds its way illegally across the borders. According to one report, 10 million cans of Chang Beer are illegally imported from Thailand annually. A wide ranging va- riety of imported liquor lines the shelves of shops and bars. The single official importer is Citymart, which has channels of distribu- tion through wholesalers, who in turn sup- ply the liquor to retail outlets, restaurants, hotels and bars.
In rural areas, the locally produced toddy is
popular, being cheap and abundantly avail- able. Toddy is a strong drink generally fer- mented from sap of the palm trees used to make sugar. Lack of education and aware- ness, coupled with a strong urge to drink combine to push many towards drinks like “ayet si”, a type of over-proof alcohol (con- taining 80% pure alcohol) that is not meant for human consumption. “Ayet phyu” is an- other local alcoholic drink, albeit for human consumption, but its standards of hygienic production make its safety a huge concern.
New licenses have been issued to global players, pushing the alcohol market on a rapid expansion route. Its negatives aside, for multinational alcohol manufacturers and distributors, Myanmar offers over twenty million potential customers who stand to get a flavor of beverages the rest of the world savors. Business expansion and the profit motive are sufficient to forget the damage to society, and no country anyway, has been able to ban alcohol production.
Facts and figures
Out of Myanmar’s population of 52 million (as per the latest census reports), almost half the male population in the country consumes alcoholic drinks, and out of these a quarter have more than 5 drinks a day. (A drink is defined as a single serving of alcohol that ranges between 12-25 ml.)
Interestingly, government figures peg per capita consumption at only 0.6 liters of pure alcohol, of which 83% is beer, 9% spirits and 8% wine. Rum and whisky have been found to be more popular than wine though, in Myanmar.
A report printed by Irrawaddy magazine states that the average consumption of beer is under 4 liters per annum. However, the actual consumption is much more. It is dif- ficult to get exact figures since unregistered brands are not accounted for, and unli- censed sales continue, all over the country.
There is some disconnect between official figures and the ground reality. Lack of re- liable data and accurate data collection methods are partly responsible for this. Strict regulation and implementation of well thought out policies to control alcohol con- sumption are a thing of the future, seriously lacking in the present. With examples of so many countries, it makes sense to follow the best practices of countries that have been able to reign in alcohol consumption. It is not advisable to ban it completely, due to its side effects, since this would push for black market sales and smuggling, but higher tax- ation, and stringent controls on availability and sale, may prove to be deterrents. Myan- mar has laws that govern the manufacture and sale of alcohol, but its strict enforce- ment remains a challenge and violators of- ten escape.
Increased Consumption of Al- cohol?
Consumption of alcoholic beverages is in- creasing globally, but awareness about its ill-effects beyond a certain level, is making many governments apply stringent regula- tions for manufacture and sale of such beverages, besides imposing stiff taxes.
In Myanmar, the consumption is increasing rapidly and this can be attributed to numer- ous factors.
Beer and spirits are not expensive, and can be afforded by a growing number of people.
Easy availability at every nook and corner, of even illicit liquor, makes it tempting.
- Bars and pubs are mushrooming in residential areas, which are pushing youngsters towards these happening places.
- Teashops are out, beer bars are in, as the ‘cool’ places to ‘hang out’ in.
- Fast emulation of Western ways is lur- ing locals, without considering the side effects.
- Opening up of the country means mar- kets are flooded with alcoholic drinks
- Disposable incomes and earning capa- bilities are improving.
It is clear that Myanmar can no longer sur- vive in a cocoon, shielded from the rest of the world. Growth is already visible ever since the economy opened its doors to the rest of the world, but whether all growth is developmental in nature, remains to be seen.
The negative side of consum- ing alcohol
Alcohol is extremely popular as a social drink, ideal for relaxed evenings and cock- tail parties. Wines are served with meals to enhance the taste with food. Years of exper- imentation and research have yielded some of the finest alcoholic beverages that taste good and leave behind a lingering feel good factor.
There is however a vast flip side to consum- ing alcohol. It is a drink that is difficult to resist, and even more so to stop after a point.
It works as a stimulant to start with, but as the amount consumed increases, it begins to work like a depressant. As consumption increases, it slows down the mental faculties of the drinker, since it affects the central nervous system, and therefore, his judg- ment, balance, coordination and cognitive capabilities. Obviously the ability to tackle problems head-on is missing, and alcohol provides that sensation of escape, a tran- sient, stress free pleasure that pushes prob- lems from the mind. With every successive drink, the mind becomes more numb, and the abating tension manifests itself in oth- er damaging ways, that impact mental and physical health. Ever so often, it becomes an addiction, difficult to shake off.
Initiation, that is, the first ever sip of an al- coholic drink inevitably is for the wrong rea- sons-due to pressure from the peer group, snob value, a desire to taste something one has seen others in the family consuming, for social acceptance that people keep up with the joneses, and so on. . As economies move to higher stages of development, con- sumption patterns change, and as with sleek vehicles and fancy homes, a different class of alcoholic drinks gain favor. Not that it is all bad, since medical research highlights its therapeutic qualities as well. However, its use is largely for the ‘kick’ it provides more than the amount it soothes.
Addiction and Dependence on Alcohol
Alcohol is known to cause dependence and is highly addictive. Dependency can be de- fined as, “a cluster of behavioral, cognitive and physiological phenomena that develops after repeated use and that typically include a strong desire to take that drug, despite difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, and higher priority given” to it, over other activities and obligations.
Globally, over 2 billion people consume some form of alcohol, of which at least, 76 million have alcohol related disorders, de- pendence or addiction, being one of them. The problem arises when the body gets so accustomed to a certain level of alcohol that if not consumed, it leads to withdrawal symptoms of shakiness, depression, nausea, sweating profusely and insomnia.
Alcohol consumption is linked to over 60 diseases that affect the heart, brain, liver and other organs of the body. But the dam- age extends beyond the drinker to his family that is often victim to his abusive behavior, affected by his mood swings and depressive tendencies, violence, negligence and deprivation.
Alcoholism is a big medical problem plagu- ing many developed and developing coun- tries, and millions have to be spent to bring alcoholics back on track so that they can re- sume a useful, productive life.
The capitalist society encourages manufac- ture and sale of products like alcohol, that fall in the grey zone somewhere in between good and bad. And we all get enamored by the tantalizing advertisements that portray lifestyles and personalities we would love to emulate.
Governments are supposed to safeguard the interests of their people but they seem helpless too in controlling harmful products from being made and sold, perhaps because they cannot forbid, only perhaps regulate, and make it extremely expensive for people to get these damaging goods.