Sikkim’s rendezvous with alcohol abuse- A serious issue socially accepted as ‘sober’

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By Bidhan Gautam & Nitesh R Pradhan

Sikkim has a high rate of alcoholism in the entire country. This problem, however, is not seen with the amount of gravitas that is required. If one checks the national statistics, India is a country with a high rate of alcohol production as well as consumption. India contributes to an overall 65% alcohol produced in South East Asia. The data of the national household survey shows that there are 62.5 million alcohol users and 10 million alcohol dependents in India.

Climate, geographical location, wide and easy availability and low tax on alcohol in Sikkim makes the state vulnerable to alcohol abuse. Alcohol drinking among parents, siblings and friends is found to be an important risk factor. Alcohol has been a taunt of flamboyancy amongst the teens here, where the number of abusers is increasing every day. Government of India has also highlighted a significant prevalence of alcohol use in Sikkim — 45.4% and 19.1% among above 15-49 years of age in males and females, respectively.

Alcohol is socially accepted here in this tiny Himalayan state, where the government is increasingly relying on alcohol revenue to pay their bills.
Alcohol, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), kills around 6,000 people every day across the world. It kills 2.6 lakh Indians every year either by causing liver cirrhosis, cancer or leading to road accidents caused by drunk driving. Alcohol is one of the leading causes of epidemic deaths and still we don’t see any warning labels on these beverages. We are well aware that alcohol is addictive and can cause harm, still, why are we openly promoting consumption and production of alcohol?

Alcohol is legal, easily available and socially accepted. The sales of liquor in India are highly impacted by government and regulatory changes year-on-year. In spite of legal restrictions, alcohol consumption in India has risen over 72.5% over a period of 20 years (according to OECD figures) as the laws are generally not followed in a customer-business relationship.
Sadly, instead of alcohol being portrayed as a harmful substance like, crystal meth, crack, etc. — alcohol is glamorised in the media; much of the time being portrayed as sophisticated, fun, sexy and generally just the cool thing to do.

The use of alcohol is deeply ingrained in our culture. So much so, that choosing not to drink is often the more odd thing to do socially. Binge drinking is practically expected on the weekends, and for many people, it is a way to unwind, let loose and have fun after a long workweek.

Many justify their consumption saying, “I don’t drink every day”. The thing about alcohol abuse is that it doesn’t have to be every day to be considered a problem or for the person to be considered an alcoholic. There are many ways we tend to justify our use because the thought of giving it up entirely or admitting that we even have a problem can be extremely overwhelming. Acceptance is one severe reason why people keep on justifying their habit of drinking.

It turns out that more than three drinks a day or more than seven drinks per week for women, and four drinks per day or 14 drinks per week for men are considered ‘high-risk’, and these patterns can be detrimental, both in the short and long-term.

However, criminalising of alcohol is not a solution to the issue. We should have the say in how we treat ourselves and what we put into our bodies and not the government or a legal system. We need to have more campaigns aimed to raise awareness about the potential harm caused by alcohol and it’s long term effect. Since alcohol is legal, it seems being safe is the tagline because our government officials and lawmakers always have our best interest as said so or lamented, but if we aren’t educating people effectively on the risks associated with alcohol consumption, then perhaps there should be more of an effort to make the risks known on the packaging and even eliminating promotion of alcohol. Young people should be made more aware of the risks and harm caused.

Many people are cautious in regard to what they are putting into their body, but they overlook alcohol as a harmful substance. Surely, it can be a reliever to relax, to loosen up, to have a bit of fun, but depending on alcohol to alter the reality and escape unhappiness is a sign that one is dependent purely on the ecstasy or excitement caused by the real ease of dopamine. Once the body is dependent on the excretion of dopamine, the flow of glucose gets blocked.
Alcohol addiction has brought many people together anonymously where people go to meetings and share their agony like cravings, or a strong desire to use alcohol. Most people though wanting to stop abusing alcohol are being unable to cut down on alcohol use despite a desire to do so. Addiction makes one unable to fulfil major obligations at home, work, or school, giving up previously enjoyed social, occupational, or recreational activities because of alcohol use.

There are many such cases in Sikkim with many reports of repeated relapse by those addicted to daily consumption of alcohol. Manish Rai (name changed) is a youth in his late 20s, who was abusive after drinking. This was repeated several times with him, even abusing his family members which acted as the final nail in the coffin, eventually leading him to a rehabilitation centre.

“If someone says, no to drinking, don’t ask why, but instead try to take down the peer pressure. I’ve had problems with drinking and have relapsed twice and currently, I’m sober. We don’t always know what others are going through but there is a saying only a person who has suffered and is suffering from the use of Alcohol can understand the problem,” he says.
Now, he has been sober for a long time, a feat he is proud of. He wants to counsel more youth and dedicate his life against the menace of alcoholism.
A great way to get things in check is to commit to a period of time without any alcohol abuse and analyse how one feels. One may need to ask friends or sponsors to support during the time and have some sober activities prepared which can be a great means of sober fun. If one’s problem is more severe or you are needing help in any way, reach out to a trusted friend or family member of the local alcoholics anonymous meetings for support and resources. Such meetings are a living testimony to the spirit of recovering towards a healthier life, free of any vices of addiction and its after-effects.
At one such anonymous meeting, we meet a top bureaucrat, it’s hard at the beginning to believe in his story. He has a successful career in the government sector for many years. He shares that it was few pegs in the beginning, later after a few years, it almost reached to two bottles of whiskey every day.
“It was a wild block out, I nearly killed myself after a party,” he says.
After a split with his partner, it was his family and best friend that completely took over his life, flew him to New Delhi for treatment.
“I was on and off Delhi and work. Treating myself of body and mind,” he says informing that it took two years to completely get over the temptation of going back to alcohol while encouraging others struggling against its abuse.

Women in Sikkim are not far left from this crisis, there are many reports suggesting Sikkim having the highest rate of alcoholism amongst the fairer sex with many of them availing help from counselling and rehabilitation centres.

For Roma Mangar (name changed), an increasing turbulent marriage led to her depending on alcohol for solace which she now feels was a bad choice as it deteriorated her health and took her far from mainstream society. She shares that she had no say in family matters and withdrew completely from the outside world resulting in depression and suicidal tendencies. Just when she thought of taking the next step of committing suicide, she got help from counsellors who rescued her from committing the act. Her family had informed a local rehabilitation centre just in time. She is now leading a healthy life and promotes fitness in a big way.

Another completely ignored issues are of domestic violence and related crimes. Sources in the police department have stated that the crimes related to alcoholism are one of the highly complained cases. The dispelling of taboo with regards to approaching the police station post domestic violence and increasing awareness amongst women has resulted in many being intervened by police for help and in some cases, getting admitted to rehabilitation centres for treatment.

Drinking excessively has also created many psychological problems in the minds of the youth with many dealing with low confidence without the absence of alcohol intake.

Psychologist, N. Shrestha, confirms that there has been an increase in stress level among the youth in Sikkim due to ill effects of drinking. Peer pressure and improper handling by parents through force does not help but further aggravates the problem. He has suggested that parents should consult counsellors and psychologists along with the child for a holistic treatment and to explore all avenues of the problem as a single unit.
Traditionally, alcoholic beverages like Chaang and Jaar are very popular, which in moderation had the capacity to beat the chill of the Himalayan mountains. This, however, has been grossly misused with even the traditional form of drinks becoming a business and being made rampantly. These drinks don’t comply with many national and international standards. Therefore the health risks emanating from its intake is risky.

Some of the pertinent issues that have been raised by activists and health workers in Sikkim is lack of timely health check-up which can play an important role in monitoring the regression or progression of one’s health particularly of those who have been alcoholic in the past.
Popular culture also shows alcohol intake in a certain way which has a direct bearing in the young minds of people.

During the course of writing this article, many youths have attributed their first alcohol drinking and smoking to television, web series or videos. The young minds in Sikkim who have easily adapted all the western or popular notion of fashion has made even smoking and drinking as an integral part of the popular culture which leads to the question of whether the current campaign against alcoholism and no smoking is working or reaching out to its targeted audience.

While alcoholism comes as a cropper in the discourse on drugs and related topics, the subsequent normalization of its intake has meant that all stakeholders have stopped taking its abuse as dangerous. The need to address the problem of rampant abuse of alcohol in all ages beginning from a teenager right up to a mature individual, as Sikkim reels under its influence. How long will it take for us to make an informed choice against it?

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