The kids will drink: Why Thailand booze ban could do more harm than good
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The kids will drink: Why Thailand booze ban could do more harm than good

IT’S uncertain at the moment how the military junta intends to enforce its ban of alcohol sales within 300 metres (500 metres has also been talked about) of educational institutions. Numerous critics opposed to the ban have said that it would gravely affect business and diminish tourism revenue, but so far the potential benefits of the action itself, which is ostensibly to sway young folks from drinking – have not been called into question. The junta seemed to back-peddle after the initial pronouncement of the order, but then said the ban would be enforced arbitrarily – based on the, “appropriateness of the situation,” according to Saman Footrakul, director of the Alcohol Beverage Office, as reported by Khaosod English.

There are plenty of reasons to feel dismayed about an arbitrary order, especially if you’re directly, monetarily, affected by it. For instance, will the enforcement be imposed fairly, and not undermined by routine police corruption? We might also ask if the order, which includes heavy penalties on any establishment selling alcohol or allowing entry to anyone under the age of 20, will prevent young people from drinking, or just push them further away to places they can consume alcohol. Does the junta have in mind a kind of reformation of the youth; is the ban based on extensive research; is the junta just flexing its muscles, or looking for an image improvement?

Last week it was reported that “tangible results” within the next six months are expected. It was reported that Saman Footrakul maintained that the enforcement would remain unspecified in terms of which educational institutions and establishments it affects and will affect.

In Thailand’s northern capital Chiang Mai 7-Elevens in proximity to Chiang Mai University have already stopped selling alcohol. In the nearby San Sai I was informed by one bar owner – her restaurant/bar located 100 metres from a college – that she had been given notice about the order a few weeks ago. The owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I’m not the only person who got that notice. I’ve heard that the government has postponed to January 2016.” She is as unclear as the rest of us as to how her livelihood will be affected.

Crackdowns are futile and dangerous

It’s unlikely that the banning of alcohol sales will stop, or even curtail, the Thai youth’s fondness for drinking. Just as arbitrarily enforced driving, or drinking and driving laws, haven’t made a dint in the amount of traffic causalities in Thailand, it’s likely that this crackdown will turn out to be another muddled, misfiring imperative. A friend informed me that he discovered a 7-Eleven not selling alcohol, and so drove, while over the limit, to a store that wasn’t in the vicinity of Chiang Mai University. One of the most salient reasons for opposing the ban, to a non-business owner, might be that it just push young people farther away and encourage drink driving? Could the order further propel the tally of road accidents and deaths in Thailand, many of which are alcohol related? When a Chiang Mai student killed three cyclists on her way home from a nightclub earlier this year, the ban wouldn’t have made any difference had it been in effect. A working public transport system might have, or even stable drink driving laws. The accident nonetheless was said to have helped prompt the ban. We might also ask that if students refrain from driving while intoxicated, will they walk 320 metres to the nearest watering hole?

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A placard shows an image of a drink driving victim during a protest in Bangkok in 2008. Pic: AP.

The WHO (World Health Organization) reports that Thailand consumes more alcohol than any other ASEAN nation, with the North-east and then the North consuming the most. According to the Center for Alcohol Studies (CAS) 31.5 percent of Thais over the age of 15 regularly drink. In terms of global consumption Thailand is quite far down the list, but it’s also reported that many Thais abstain from drinking – as many as 75% of women and 45% of men, according to the WHO. In the same report Thailand scored at the highest end of the scale for alcohol-attributable ‘Years of Life Lost’ due to liver cirrhosis and road traffic accidents. The WHO also found that in terms of policies and interventions Thailand ticks all the right boxes. Something obviously isn’t working.

In the Bangkok Post earlier this year, following the announcement of the order, it was said the government puts heavy taxes on alcoholic drinks attractive to youth to curb consumption, although any store selling alcohol will tell you that’s not true. Drinks with heavy taxes, such as wine, are mostly attractive to foreigners and the Thai working middle and upper classes. Thai alcohol companies however offer very affordable booze to Thai students, including companies such as the owners of Chang, Singha, and multiple cheap and heavily marketed Thai whiskies. If you’re drinking locally made alcohol, or alcohol made by one of Thailand’s huge corporations, such as Thai Beverage (Chang, Hong Thong), drinking is not expensive, even to a Thai student. Taxes don’t curb consumption.

Drinking

It’s interesting that drinking here is a mostly masculine affair, according to statistics. The marketing of alcohol does seem to be aimed at young men; even the names are tough: Thai mythical creature (Singh); Elephant (Chang); Leopard (Leo); and then there’s Black Cock and White Cock whiskey. Semiotics-driven alcohol advertising seems to mostly focus on male targets, and this is perhaps one of the reasons men consume the majority of booze. In Thailand women drinking, especially to excess, is seen as culturally taboo. This trend will likely change as women in Thailand become more empowered.

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A city bus carries an advertisement for Chang beer past a statue of an elephant in downtown Bangkok. Pic: AP.

It only took the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, calling cigarettes ‘torches of freedom’ to women seeking liberation in the 1920s to transform smoking for women from being taboo to being related to female empowerment. The reason I say this is because marketing could change the way anyone consumes alcohol in Thailand. Rather than zero-tolerance, Just Say No campaigns, which have proved lame all over the world concerning drugs and drink, could intelligent, subliminal marketing that puts drinking in a more negative light reverse a trend? A 300 metre booze ban, or pixelating pictures of beer (last seen at Chiang Mai’s House of Beer) has no rational objective that I can think of. While drinking, and necessitous drinking, is a result of psychological factors, crackdowns are not likely to allay the problem of heavy drinking and its many dire consequences. We should also not forget that many young people are responsible, moderate, happy drinkers.

If the move by the junta is only to create a better public image for itself, considering the risk of health complications and deaths accorded to heavy drinking, as well as the monetary incursion on business, this order is gratuitously selfish.

The propensity for heavy drinking is likely somehow partly correlated to satisfaction with life, boredom, or even genetic influence. Wars against drugs, or drink, don’t work, they never have. Neither do unrealistic scare-factor campaigns; moderation is the key to the healthier lifestyle, and it is also to the way governments should impose their will on the public. As The Guardian wrote this year on the same subject of banning alcohol in American university campuses, “Imposing such a measure only creates the illusion of tackling a problem far greater and more deeply ingrained than a simple ban can address.”

Would it not be better for Thai students to drink safely within university campuses, than venture out on motorbikes into town? Would it not be better to have informed drug, alcohol, driving education in schools rather than educating kids with soundless posters smeared on school walls showing things such as the remnants of a drunken motorcyclist’s skull? The kids want to drink, and whatever dark campaigns or distance strictures they come across won’t stop them.

About the author:

James Austin is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.