Once again, the scourge of illicit liquor has struck, this time in Punjab, killing more than 100 people and leaving many crippled. The victims, in Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur districts, were sold hooch that apparently had a large amount of denatured alcohol. The State government, which is responsible for both excise and law and order, has sanctioned financial relief for the affected families, and suspended some policemen and officials in charge of excise enforcement. Wiser after the fact, the police claim that there was an inter-district racket in operation and made several arrests; on the other hand, the kith and kin of those who died say the illicit brew was peddled virtually in the open by small-time vendors, some of whom have now been arrested. There are echoes in the tragedy of last year’s two major incidents involving Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and Assam, both witnessing large-scale loss of life. Moreover, there have been fatal outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people desperate for alcohol consumed hand sanitiser as a substitute, most recently in Andhra Pradesh. Almost every year, India’s moonshine market inflicts tremendous destruction in the form of blindness, tissue damage and death, as commercial alcohol becomes expensive for the less affluent, and corrupt bureaucracies allow that void to be filled by illicit liquor vendors who almost invariably use toxic methanol instead of ethanol.
Policies that fail to contain illicit alcohol produce long-term health impacts, as people tend to consume brews that have higher concentrations of alcohol, or toxic substances such as methanol. This should be particularly alarming for Punjab, which continues to simultaneously battle significant levels of narcotic drug use. From a medical viewpoint, the availability of licit spirits that contain lower alcohol levels, combined with a sustained public health campaign to wean people away from the drinking habit and to warn them about the effects of contaminants are key interventions. Health communication about harm from alcohol is particularly relevant during the pandemic, since there is evidence of reduced immunity to viruses among those who are chronic alcohol consumers. As the World Health Organization points out, governments should regulate the quality of legal alcoholic drinks, while actively tracing and tracking illicit alcohol. This can be achieved only through cooperation from the community, particularly from women’s groups. Tragically, several States give low priority to revamping the excise administration and policing, paving the way for episodic death and misery. They must show determination to end the flow of toxic brews that kill scores almost every year. The capability of the health system in every district needs to be raised, to reduce the damage from methanol through immediate, simple detoxification therapies.