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Indian youth starting to drink at 19

May 21, 2008

Urban youth in India is taking to alcohol in a big way and that is one of the reasons why Health Minister A Ramadoss has decided to formulate and launch the country’s first national policy against alcohol. A NIMHANS study has revealed that the average age of alcohol consumption in India has fallen by nearly nine years over the past decade, from 28 to 19, and this is predicted to fall to 15 in another 5-7 years.

Our Constitution encourages prohibition
What I also found out was that one of the Directive Princples of the State Policy (Article 47 of the Constitution) says that:

The State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health…

In fact India wants October 2nd to be declared as World No Alcohol Day.

Alcohol and drinking is as old as the hills
Nothing will stop people drinking however. All traditional societies consumed and brewed alcohol and there are indications that distillation of liquor happened as early as 150 B.C. in India. However drinking alcohol was always disapproved of in India…but regarded as a minor sin only.beer screwdriver

Decreasing disapproval of alcohol drinking is driving up consumption
In India today drinking alcohol is still considered only a minor sin (as long as men do it) but attitudes are changing. Social drinking is slowly catching on and societal tolerance towards drinking is going up. Today 32 percent of our population consumes alcohol (National Family Health Survey NFHS-3, 2007) and between 4 and 13 percent have it daily…and there is no distinction between rural and urban population. And consumption is going up…particularly amongst the young.

I don’t think the government is going to succeed in its policy to curb drinking. This is not just because the government cannot fight against the strong liquor industry (India has now become a thriving producer of alcohol, producing 65 percent of alcohol in the South East Asia) but because Prohibition doesn’t work in India because of weak implementation of laws here…it simply drives alcohol underground…not that I approve of Prohibition. As for the age limit set for drinking…that’s only on paper. No one follows the law and the law doesn’t care.

Enforcement of underage drinking in other parts of the world
India is not the only place where there is no enforcement of the law to stop underage drinking. It happens in Britain too. In fact Britain has a real problem with preteens and teens from vulnerable social groups indulging in binge drinking which leads them into violent activities and crime. In fact youth from every country in Europe except Turkey (ages 15-16) indulged in more binge drinking than youth in America. What’s worked in America is the the raising the legal drinking age to 21, which is one of the highest in the world…but more important…enforcing the law with some amount of strictness. It says here:

The teen binge-drinking rate in the U.S. is about 22 percent, compared to 60 percent in Denmark, 57 percent in Germany, 54 percent in Great Britain, 34 percent in Italy, and 28 percent in France, the PIRE report said.

In India the legal drinking age varies from state to state and ranges from 18-25 but that has no meaning anyway as no one enforces it. If the NIMHANS study is correct and Indian youth start drinking at 15 in another five years, the law certainly won’t stop them.beershop

India has a problem
Whether it’s rich kids going on binge drinking and crashing cars…or illiterate people on the brink of poverty who drink regularly ruining their families…or the middle classes who drink themselves till they land in the hospital, India has a huge problem. In rural India, it has prompted whole villages to adopt a no-alcohol policy…and well, it has had its benefits..

Since prohibition came to the area, the daily round of rural life — walking to and from the fields, into a nearby town or dropping over to neighbors — has been free for the first time in memory of the menace of local men who are drunk…

This works only as long as the women themselves keep a close watch on their men…it cannot last forever. That story I mentioned is an old one (1996) and though one keeps hearing of such villages…I wonder how long these bans last…

Alcohol education a must in India
I always had a tolerant attitude towards drinking as I took my first sip of alcohol at 15, and that too with my family. I grew up in an Army atmosphere where alcohol was not a bad word and although I didn’t drink regularly I was always encouraged to have wine or a glass of beer when we had a party…and no one ever disapproved, not my uncles and aunts or anybody else and we had a large extended family.
Ofcourse I knew that most of India had conservative ideas about alcohol…and people believed that if you drank then you must be a drunkard and if you are a woman who drank you are worse than that. In fact in India people usually do drink to get drunk. In our family we always made fun of those who got drunk and made a fool of themselves…but at no time did we attach moral labels to them.

The way I was brought up, it was the behavior which was disgusting, not the drink. My dad was always proud of the fact that he could hold his drink and never in my whole life have I seen him drunk although he is a regular drinker. I learnt from an early age that alcohol is potent, that there are ways to drink, the right time (and situation) to drink, how not to mix drinks, how much to drink and so on. As the word alcohol or drinking was never a taboo subject in our home, the subject was discussed freely. It was excessive drinking which was bad, and it was lack of control which was bad…not drinking in itself. A drink had to had slowly, with food in the stomach, and in moderation, and if at all one had to have that extra drink, one had to be careful if one was in a public place. Having that extra drink with close friends and family was never taboo.

Another thing we (my brother and me) were taught was that drinking alcohol from our parents hard-earned money wasn’t the right thing as drinking was a luxury and as such it had to be had with one’s own hard earned money…after other more important things were taken care of. Alcohol was leisure and fun, and it had to be dispensed with if need be.

As Prohibition will never work in India, what’s important is awareness of the dangers of addiction. Today in India (unfortunately) alcohol hasn’t come out of the closet…and therefore educating people about drinking becomes difficult.

beer shop2

(Photos by me and all copyrighted)

Related reading: Social drinking in India
Stricter laws on drinking and driving in Mumbai
Pot can cause mental illness says the Lancet
Road accidents in India
An invention to stop drunk drivers
Fear of jail stops people from breaking traffic rules

31 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2008 10:56 am

    I proudly announce I had NEVER tested alcohol and I am 100% sure I will never do it.
    Nita, I can’t pretend that I am not amazed to hear about your experience. But I am a TYPICAL guy so its normal behavior of me.
    Alcohol Education? You think its gonna work? I am not sure about that, Nita.
    Drinking in early age is becoming a problem, I agree. But reason behind it is lack of proper education at home. No school can teach what your parents can do. Look at your own case, you were fully aware of do’s and don’t s as your family taught you about it.
    And I am glad you mentioned villages who adopted no-alcohol policy.
    Personally I have persuaded at least 3 people to quit or decrease drinking. Two of them quit it totally and remaining is about to.🙂

  2. May 21, 2008 10:58 am

    I forgot to mention, I have a little idea,
    We can decide that we will control drinking and encourage as many people as possible. If one person convince just one other person about drinking, we can make great difference together.

  3. May 21, 2008 11:07 am

    lol🙂 i remember a debate in ndtv where they told that the official age for drinking is 21…i agree with you,drinking in moderate levels is alright,i think our health minister should be more bothered about anti-smoking…

  4. May 21, 2008 11:52 am

    Drinking is fine till the person is in his/her senses. I too drink occasionally but the moment I feel that I have to stop here or I will loose control, I stop. Then the rest of the drink goes down the drain. I think this is a kind of responsibility which should come from within. And drinking in small amounts is not harmful, but yes as Vishesh pointed out, smoking should be taken as a more serious threat.

  5. May 21, 2008 1:17 pm

    As Prohibition will never work in India, what’s important is awareness of the dangers of addiction

    Good note🙂

  6. May 21, 2008 1:54 pm

    Government earns lot of revenue through liquor sales. So govt can not close liquor shops. Also liquor consumption and liquor production keeps on increasing. Iam sure hardly any youth at the age of 19 is employed. Even if employed, salary won’t be sufficient to spend on liquor. Then where the money comes from ? Our Health Minister firmly believes that the youth drink, because of actors are shown drinking in movies. Why do youth drink ? Is it for fun and enjoyment or out of frustration? Can someone clarify ?

  7. May 21, 2008 3:08 pm

    Nita, that is a very, very sad news…:(

    I guess it is a tendency worldwide, but the western countries are much more “advanced ” here. In Austria the number of child (!!) alcohol consume is increasing every day – many start with 8 (!!!).. There are some cases of death of drunkard children and even this phenomenon has got a label -COMA DRINKING (meaning the drink till they get into coma state).. The ministry of healf tries some propaganda against it now (but only against Jouth drinking, other wise it is a huge business), but I also doubt that it will bring anything since the alcohol tolerance in the society is so high.

    So from this perspective India is still doing well…🙂😦

  8. May 21, 2008 4:32 pm

    Hi

    Going a little off topic, the other problem in In India is also illicite liquor.

  9. May 21, 2008 4:35 pm

    Suda, I think its great that you don’t drink…no temptations for you!🙂 About trying to convince people not to drink, I assume you mean alcoholics. Well, I do not consider myself the right person to do that but there are many organisations like AA which help.

    Vishesh/Amit, as you say smoking even in moderation is harmful, unlike drinking!

    Dinsan, Prohibition gives rise to worse tragedies, deaths from illicit liquor. Also I don’t think that it is a good idea to ban liquor as I do not believe that everyone should be made to suffer for the follies and lack of control of some others. I think it is more important to stop kids from drinking and educate people on the bad effects of binge drinking.

    Old Sailor, in my opinion I think its fun and for some, peer group pressure. Actually surrogate advertising is also to blame as it definitely creates a desire to drink…makes some people feel that its cool. The govt. is going to crack down on surrogate advertising now.

    Axinia, that is indeed shocking to hear! Kids are young as 8!! Here too in the slums this happens as parents are not taking care of the kids…they get into drugs and drug dealing at a very young age, by about 10-12. There is money in drug-dealing and it finances their habit. A lot of teens in the slums in India have these habits which they finance from criminal activities. I am not sure whether the kids you mention in Europe come from loving homes or not. Finally, it is the home atmosphere which matters. If the family has cracks, the children are lost, particularly in today’s modern world.

    Thoughtroom, yes, illicit liquor is a big problem even without prohibition! Its cheap and therefore attracts a lot of customers and regularly kills people in India.

  10. May 21, 2008 4:38 pm

    As long as they don’t ban alcohol completely, I’m happy!😀
    But yeah, this news is indeed disturbing… I think its a good move to raise the legal drinking age and as part of the initiative, pubs, bars and night clubs should demand to see proof of age before serving drinks… But how would this be controlled? There’re seedy road-side wine shops all over the city, in every nook and corner… It’d be a logistical nightmare to coordinate!

  11. May 21, 2008 6:11 pm

    Nita, your quess is right when you suppose those children come not from the loving homes – this is the major problem in Europe and I believe also the source of many other problems!

  12. May 21, 2008 6:13 pm

    Nita,

    As you pointed out, what are the chances that prohibition will work? It will increase illegal methods of procuring the same. The consumption among middle class party goers is increasing than what was probably a decade ago – rise in income perhaps?

    Instead of getting discouraged I think someone (government being a choice to begin with) should take that first step. Education is not such a bad idea provided no one has a problem as was with sex education. You never know ..someone might rack their brains to come up with a creative side-effect that is politically motivated.

  13. May 22, 2008 4:24 am

    Nita- you are right in pointing out that in every culture ther is production of fermented alcoholic beverages, i was raised in an Eastern European family where alcohol was cosumed as part of social ritual, and inebriation was frowned upon. There were aperitif alcohols, wine to go with fish, fowl or meat, dessert wines, etc. Everything had its proper place in moderation. We were raised to rink small amounts as accompaniments to food, and discouraged to see alcohol consumption as a method of changing one’s mood, or use it as a mood enhancer. Down that road lay addiction and uncontrolled consumption and behaviour.
    I spent my teens in Canada. here the right to consume alcohol is seen as a rite of passage to adulthood. When i was young legal age for drinking was 21 – and establishments serving alcohol were stringent in taking identity cards to prove legal age. Sometime late the legal age here was dropped to 19, and it seems to me with it, some feeling among the young that drinking alcohol meant drinking to excess -t oget as much down as possible and enter an altered state as fast as possible. many road deaths of drunken youths has been the result, as well as innocent bystanders. Our government takes tax profits from the sale of alcohol, while at the same time not providing tax monies for the presence of detox centres in communities. Sure, we have AA groups everywhere, but it is entirely voluntary. I believe if a government makes revenue from sales of a noxious substance that causes so many social ills, it has tge duty to provide the means to educate and wean people from the said products, and provide more support to detox centres. I believ alcoholism is a mental illness, and should be under the health act, so if someone is a habitual alcoholic, where they cannot function responsibly in society, then, such people should be able to be forced into a detox centre to have their behaviour modified. This take mighty social will, an many people don’t want to have to deal with the ramifications. It requires serious social dialogue, amongst other issues which require much questioning and discussion. I suspect here, and in other places in the world, the will is lacking to tackle the complexity of the issue. Where there is money to be made from a product, no matter how ill-effects it has, the gears of change grind exceedingly slow. G

  14. May 22, 2008 6:37 am

    Nita.. Absolutely True…
    Rules won’t work here, its only awreness can help…

  15. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    May 22, 2008 6:47 am

    Nita,

    Of all your photographic achievements that I have seen, this one gets my prize for worst photograph. I suppose it is cropped, but the resulting impression — with possibly three beers, one whiskey-soda and perhaps a Bloody Mary — is a table set exclusively for the deadly serious purpose of drinking (i.e. no socialisation), the body language of the drinkers — as far as it is possible to tell from three pairs of trousered knees packed around two sides of the table — suggests they are between “get set” and “GO!”.

    I can’t make out whether the fragment of blue floral print at the bottom left corner of the photograph is a doily on a side table or the salwar/skirt/saree of a feminine minority member of the group, waiting in resignation, alternately amused and bored, to move on to dinner.

    Today (5th JUne) while browsing through my large collection of photos I found 3 more photos which I could use for this post. And have added them here…more stuff for newspapers to steal!!🙂 – Nita.

  16. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    May 22, 2008 6:54 am

    Postsript: I forgot to liberally sprinkle smileys through the above. A thousand apologies!

  17. May 22, 2008 8:57 am

    Nikhil, thanks. Yes I agree it would be difficult to control all the illegal stuff…but you see even if you catch one it can deter many, though not all. Have you head of anyone being prosecuted for selling alcohol to a kid? No one!!🙂

    Lakshmi, I like the way you have compared alcohol education to sex education, both taboo subjects in our society! You are absolutely right, there is no way that bans will ever work.

    G, thanks for that detailed understanding into the different alcohol cultures in East Europe and in Canada. As you say the government is not really bothered because it gets revenue from alcohol sales…and at the same time we have to admit that bans will never work unless one has an atmosphere of a strict Muslim country like Saudi Arabia where punishment for drinking alcohol is to be feared. No country wants to live in a regime like that. One needs to find a middle path.

    CM-Chap, thanks.

    Vivek, no need to apologize as this is surely no prize winning photo!🙂 Its there simply as an accompaniment to the article, and I had a choice of using that (only one I have of alcohol drinking) or take one off the web. I chose the former.

  18. Ravi permalink
    May 22, 2008 12:39 pm

    From my observations I think the exact age at which a teenager starts drinking in india is 17 instead of 19. As soon as the kids get out of high school they taste some kind of freedom in the form of residential coaching centers for plus 2 and other competitive exams like IIT-JEE. I have seen my buddies start drinking as early as 17. When we were in residential school only once in a month we had an outing on saturday. Its like gettin a free pass to do whatever we want on that day. Though I was associated with those “drunkards” (laughing) I never had alcohol.

    Nobody cares for underage drinking in India go to any liquor store you will get raw(hot) liquor. We were never questioned for an ID or something to verify our age. I wonder how could a “cultured” society appreciates underage drinking. When I was in college we were 600 engineering students. I bet you will be surprised to know that only 13(including me) abstained from alcohol all through the 4 yrs of our college.

    I m not insisting on saying that drinking is bad or something. But why would one drink in a hot country like india. Irrespective of our riches we all leading a miserable life in polluted weather. Is it necessary to further deteriorate our health by consuming alcohol. We dont eat healthy food like some fitness freaks in western countries. With the intake of vegetable oil, meat and fried foods does it makes any sense to take alcohol? I have no idea how could we drink in a 45C temperature. Its ok to drink if india is a cold country but its fuckin hot here and why the hell we drink? I dont know how many of u will appreciate my thoughts but I feel drinking is more like inviting trouble and drunkards look disgusting with big bellies and fat cheeks..EEWWWWW

  19. vivek mittal permalink
    May 22, 2008 1:47 pm

    I am not sure what’s the minimum age for drinking set by govt in our country (perhaps 21 but i’m not sure)

    But i am of the view that min age for drinking in india should be 25, nothing less……

    People may say if we can vote at 18 then why not drink…to them i would say one should be mature and responsible enough before drinking…………mostly an indian youth above 25 yrs would be earning on his own , would be probably in a serious commitment (married or committed) ……and people fulfilling the above two criteria in my view can be termed as responsible
    In a typical middle or upper class indian family , very rarely an 18 yr old would drink of his own money……would not feel responsible…and a habit of drinking at such an age can destroy a career.
    I have seen some of my hostel mates during college days drinking like anything…….borrowing money from others to drink…..not concentrating on study or career…and their academic career turned out to be a disaster
    And in my theory a 25 year old would most probably be settled and would start feeling responsible for someone……….and then drinking (if at all, it will be a social drinking) would not do any bad to his life

  20. May 22, 2008 2:39 pm

    Ravi, well it is indeed true that drinking is not necessary…why in a hot country, its not necessary even in a cold country (though they can digest it better I am sure) but well, people do it. Thats the reality…they do it because it gives them pleasure. We are not yet a society where we can have a Taliban like approach to things and we tend to give people the freedom of choice. This leaves a lot of responsibility on the individual.

    Vivek M, as far as I know in Delhi the min age for drinking is 25…well, no one follows it so whats the use! I agree with you though that is a shame for people to drink regularly from their parents’ money. Also, the later you start to drink, the lesser the chances of addiction. There is a lot of research which says that most heavy drinkers and alcoholics start to drink regularly at an early age.

  21. May 22, 2008 2:59 pm

    what adults do with their own hard earned money, out of their own free will is nobody business… if they like a drink or two, whats the harm…
    however if there is DUI or misbehaving in public or engaging in abuse (physical/verbal) then send them behind bars… but don’t spoil the party culture of country.

  22. vivek mittal permalink
    May 22, 2008 4:57 pm

    Nita

    Problem is not with the law, but with the implementation……….if law can not stop a crime (say molestation) then it doesn’t mean that the law is useless…..the implementation of the age barrier to be taken care of by our politicians rather than making hue & cry on bollywood stars drinking/smoking on screen
    You rightly said we are not Afghanistan to force people not to drink, (And we are lucky enough to have developed democratic culture)….But an age limit of 25 to drink is justifiable..

  23. May 22, 2008 5:06 pm

    Hai nita, there is a medical theory which says that some persons have their addiction ability in their genitic makeup itself for ex if two persons say x nd y both taste their alcohol at same age x may addicted on the other hand y may still in control.(note: its a great time to invest united brewaries lol!)

  24. May 23, 2008 1:54 am

    This is probably a pretty politically incorrect thing to say but I think that the problem is that Indians are not introduced to alcohol as children.

    A lot of the young adults I know who overdo drinking are people who come from relatively conservative homes, go to college, live in hostels and suddenly start drinking supreme rubbish – cheap whiskey qualifies as rubbish – in extremely large quantities to (a) make a statement, (b) rebel, (c) fit in, and (d) be cool.

    They have absolutely no concept of drinking anything high quality in small quantities or being even marginally responsible about what they do with alcohol. I find it very difficult to believe that they would behave like such complete idiots if they were brought up to enjoy alcohol (including wine) responsibly instead of being brought up to turn into 27-year old cowards who when admitted to hospital with alcohol poisoning turn around and say, “But mommy, I don’t drink.”

  25. May 23, 2008 9:54 am

    Ankur, can’t help but agree…freedom of choice is my mantra and so is live and let live.

    Vivek M, the laws need to be there…in case someone wants to harass someone!!🙂

    coolzen, genetics does play a part. its a combination of factors, both biological and environmental.

    Nandita, yes I agree more people from conservative homes find it difficult to handle alcohol. Its like sex…those from conservative families often become promiscuous. For example I am from conservative Sadashiv Peth in Pune but my school pal and I were always in jeans and T shirts and mixed with boys, had coffee with them, went for picnics with them etc. But we knew where to draw the line but the promiscuous girls in our neighborhood dressed in sarees, walked iwth their head down and had long plaits! We knew what they were as the boys told us! I am not saying that all girls who dress in sarees are like that, but what I am saying is that appearances are very deceptive. When I was writing the article teenage sex, I interviewed many boys and girls. I found that girls from conservative families (as it was Kolkata it was the Muslims and Marwaris) had had several abortions, and had started sex at times as young as 14, some with their own cousins as they were not allowed to mix with boys. And the parents had no clue, they thought their dear daughters were virgins and so would their prospective husbands as these girls and boys become adept at lying! The majority of boys and girls I interviewed from conservative families (totally I met about 50 people, half from modern families and half from conservative ) were into their 4th of 5th affair! All the girls who had had abortions were from conservative families!! And this was about 12 years ago.

  26. vivek mittal permalink
    May 23, 2008 10:34 am

    Nita

    i dont know why but i could not take your comments in humor…….it’s true that the law can be misused, but at any given time anyone if above 25 yrs old, can prove his/her age easily…..moreover penalty for underage drinkers can be less harsh like those in breaking traffic rules.
    Our youth should be saved from addiction to drinking in their very formative yesrs

    Vivek M, chill!🙂 I am not arguing with you! – Nita.

  27. May 23, 2008 4:55 pm

    Thanks for the link to the article about teenage sex. I’ve always suspected that people from traditional backgrounds are often far more experienced than they would have one believe so I’m not surprised by what you found although I’ve never formally interviewed anyone on the subject.

    I’d thought of the connection when I was leaving the comment but didn’t mention it because one major difference I saw between the two is that while there are strong moral / religious arguments in favour of abstaining from sex — and I’m not saying that I agree with them, just that they exist — there are no such arguments against drinking: just a vague, “It’s not good / right.”

  28. May 24, 2008 12:26 pm

    Acceptance has to come from within. Schools, regulations, parents, rules can only serve as guidelines. If a person is convinced that there is no need to drink excessive alcohol, they wont. You cant force them not to! In case of alcohol, there is also a case of health ailments, which pushes the anti alcohol policy further.

    And many of my friends reduce the alcohol consumption by 25! Not many start at that age… Its just a question of maturity and responsibility. As long as either of them is very little or too much, people would take to excessive drinking.

    Destination Infinity.

  29. May 26, 2008 6:40 am

    in mumbai i thought it was 16 or 17

    but no wine shop follows rules – even a 9 yr old kid asks for vodka in front of my eyes the dealer gives it to him.. did u know that one needs a license to even buy alcohol
    and as u pointed out and take france as an example kids start at 5 to consume wine, but still there is no dui or tamasha, drinking is an acquired skill and the problems happen when people aren’t taught or don’t know when to stop and how to drink, plus the rich spoil their kids rotten and they start thinking that they are kings and they can do no wrong , the lower classes don’t stop until they are so drunk that the footpath becomes their bed

  30. Ravi permalink
    May 26, 2008 7:46 am

    Indian parents are promting their kids to drink at an early age. Lately it has become fashion to consume alcohol during family functions which indirectly gives an impression that alcohol is not forbidden as premarital sex. Indian parents especially dads must not show their dirty side i.e. of a drunkard to their kids. I think it will help to some extent to keep teenagers away from boozing.

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