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Thailand still missing the middle path in alcohol control

Thailand still missing the middle path in alcohol control

No less than four draft laws on alcohol control will soon go before Parliament, but none appear to contain a middle path that will satisfy everyone.

Two drafts, one proposed by the Public Health Ministry’s Disease Control Department (DCD) and the other by an anti-alcohol group, push for strict control – apparently out of concern about health and other impacts of drinking.

The two other drafts, one written by a pro-alcohol group and the other by Move Forward MP and craft-beer champion Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, seek to break monopoly-like conditions in the industry, which is dominated by just a handful of brewing giants.

Along with these, the government’s eight-point recommendation will also join the fray.

Strict rules

Since the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act was enacted in 2008, Thailand has ranked among countries with tight restrictions on the advertising, sale and consumption of booze.

This Act outlaws any form of advertising that displays, directly or indirectly, an alcoholic beverage’s brand or trademark.

Displaying even a picture of a glass of beer can result in a hefty fine.

“I’ve heard that one restaurant was fined close to 1 million baht once,” said Asst Prof Dr Charoen Charoenchai, a lecturer at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi’s Faculty of Agricultural Technology.

Charoen, who leads the group behind one of the draft laws to liberalize alcohol, believes authorities have tightened control until there is almost no room to breathe.

“I don’t think this Alcohol Beverage Control Law is normal since it authorizes the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to add new stipulations.”

“Normally, legal changes should come from the legislature,” the lecturer said.

Rumors suggest the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is planning to tag packaging with pictures depicting the dangers of alcohol consumption.

More power to control consumption?

Charoen said that if the DCD’s draft becomes law, authorities and officials will be handed inappropriate powers.

For instance, officials will have the power to search and inspect breweries or retailers selling alcohol without a search warrant.

There is concern that this will also open the door to corruption and harassment by unscrupulous officials.

“After looking through the drafts presented by the DCD and the anti-alcohol group, I can tell that their content is extreme. It’s as if they intend to ban any public mention of alcohol,” Charoen said.

The DCD draft would also raise the ceiling of penalties for an offending manufacturer or importer from Bt500,000 to Bt1 million and up to one year in jail, or both.

Too strict?

Charoen said such a strict approach would affect the freedom and rights to earn a livelihood of many.

Businesses that rely on tourists, for instance, were uncomfortable about scary pictures being attached to the packaging of alcoholic drinks, he explained.

He said the strict law even affects his own field of education; though he teaches about the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, the law stops him from openly sharing his knowledge with his students.

“I can’t talk about content that can be useful, even though as a lecturer, I should be serving the public with my academic knowledge,” he said.

“Similarly, manufacturers can’t communicate about their products with consumers either.”

Supapong Puenglampu, who represents small-scale liquor manufacturers, lamented that despite having the license to produce liquor and meeting all manufacturing standards and hygiene requirements, alcohol producers like him still face many problems under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.

“If we try to present product information, our action is seen as encouraging drinking. How can we sell our product without explaining what makes it different from others?”

He said that though small and local producers need to display their local identity, displaying a trademark or an emblem can land them in trouble.

“Small manufacturers like us are summoned to court. If we can’t afford a court battle, we end up having to pay a fine at the Office of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.”

Draft laws on liberalizing alcohol

The draft law pushed by the Charoen-led group hopes Thailand will allow alcoholic beverages to be sold from vending machines, in shops near universities and through round-the-clock promotional campaigns.

The draft proposed by the Move Forward MP is along the same lines.

For instance, it would lift the restriction on the sale of alcohol during certain hours and allow people to drink where they want, including public parks and educational institutions.

Government recommendations

Believing that all four drafts represent extreme ends of the debate, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin tasked PM’s Secretary-General Prommin Lertsuridej to come up with recommendations for Parliament to consider alongside the quartet.

The eight-point recommendation, which has already won a Cabinet nod, seeks to ease tight controls on alcohol consumption in Thailand.

For instance, it advocates the sale of alcohol at hotels or venues located near schools, as well as at stadiums and concert halls.

It also suggests that the ban on selling alcohol through vending machines be lifted and promotions and discounts be allowed.

Too lenient?

Theera Watcharapranee, director of Stop-Drink Network Thailand, said the eight-point recommendation would weaken the country’s alcohol controls and favor alcohol-based businesses including pubs and bars.

“The people will pay the price if you only please investors and businesses,” he warned.

“If the consumption of alcohol rises, you will see more fatal road accidents from drunk driving.”

According to the National Statistical Office, the number of alcohol drinkers in Thailand has dropped by 2% since the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act took effect in 2008.

The percentage of total road-accident casualties hospitalized by drunk driving during Thailand’s infamous “7 dangerous days” over the Songkran and New Year holidays has also dropped, from 40% to 26%.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Act won 13 million signatures of support, including Theera’s, before it was enforced.

Assoc Prof Dr Udomsak Saengow from Walailak University said the alcohol-control law was, in fact, beneficial, but the people in power are too preoccupied with the idea of liberalizing the industry to recognize the law’s benefits.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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