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Prohibition: India's and America's shared lessons in fight against alcohol

This week's death toll of more than 100 in the Indian state of West Bengal point to India's well-intentioned motives but mixed record in restricting the sale of alcohol.

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Even in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation carved out of India at the time of Independence from Britain in 1947, British-era rules allowing for the state control of alcohol sales have simply pushed many Pakistanis to purchase alcohol through private channels. In the capital city of Islamabad, for instance, all one needs to do to get a beer is to go to a Chinese restaurant and ask for “cold tea.” A teapot filled with beer will be brought to one’s table, along with a glass.

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Like America’s prohibitionists, Indian leaders saw alcohol as a scourge, and Gandhi equated alcohol consumption with supporting the British Empire. Drawing parallels between the British sale of alcohol in India and the British subjugation of China through the opium trade, Gandhi urged Indians to kick the alcohol habit as a national – and religious – duty. In 1934, at a time when the British government controlled the sale of alcohol, and derived tax revenues from that sale, Gandhi wrote, “It is wrong and immoral for a nation to supply intoxicating liquor to those who are addicted to drink.”

Yet when India gained its independence, the Congress Party didn't ban the sale of alcohol. It decided to sell the alcohol itself, and promised eventual steps toward its eventual prohibition. Multiple efforts have been made to ban the sale altogether, and some states, such as Gujarat, are officially dry. Even in states where the sale of alcohol is allowed, consumers must purchase directly from the Indian government in musty state-run liquor stores.

And, as the West Bengal deaths show, there is no sign that the restriction of alcohol has any impact on the demand. Restriction simply shrinks the supply of alcohol, and sends consumers to other suppliers, and often those are people who don’t have the technical skill to ensure that their product doesn’t kill.

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