By David Swartzentruber who has lived in Thailand for more than six years and, in the United States, worked as a psychologist treating alcoholism.
It seems that on a weekly basis Public Health Minister Phinij Jarusombat floats new proposals to curb drinking in Thailand. The latest suggestion, to prohibit the sale of alcohol at hotel bars and restaurants at certain times of the day, brought with
it a predictable backlash from the Association of Thai Travel Agents and the Thai Hotels Association, who are demanding more public input on these ''decrees''.
On the face of it, the government should heed the tourist sector's request, because the new curbs smack of prohibition, which has been proven not to work. Read up on the failed Prohibition Era in the United States (1916-1933) and you will understand
That is why taxation and education are the tools most modern countries use, but it seems that the message has not yet reached Phinij. It might be good at this point to take a step back and examine what Thailand's actual drinking problem is.
The latest figures available are the World Health Organisation's (WHO) 2004 ''Global Status Report on Alcohol'', which suggest that Thailand's drinking profile differs substantially from most other nations.
In the consumption of beer and wine categories, Thailand doesn't make a scratch; it is not among the top 20 consuming countries for those drinks. However, when it comes to spirits Thailand ranks sixth in the world, with a consumption rate of 7.13
litres of alcohol per person.
The drinking profile of more advanced countries shows that citizens consume beverages of lower alcohol content, such as beer and wine and not hard liquor. That is why Thailand's consumption profile is unique and tragic.
If this figure surprises you, it should not, as it is a mirror-image of the excise tax structure on alcoholic beverages in Thailand. When the Excise Department adjusted excise taxes on alcoholic beverages in October 2004, the tax on whiskey went up
slightly, but taxes on beer and wine could not be raised as those taxes were at the highest possible level under the department's current tax structure. Thus, it is not surprising that Thais drink high-proof whiskey in large quantities, it's what
they can afford.
The result is Thailand's tax on table wine is the second highest in the world, for example, and it is the world's seventh largest Scotch whiskey market, Scotch industry executives say.
Thus, the current excise tax structure encourages the consumption of beverages containing high amounts of alcohol and discourages the consumption of beverages with lower alcohol content.
This taxation system is a sure recipe for the alcoholism problem Thailand currently faces. It is actually a government-sponsored problem that goes back many years when the Thai government had a monopoly on the production of alcohol.
As the Excise Department has failed to adopt a more socially-conscious excise tax structure, it has fallen on the shoulders of the Public Health Ministry to tackle the problem. This accounts for some of the bizarre and seemingly outlandish policies
coming out of the ministry recently.
For most of last year continuing into this, the ministry has forbidden the sale of alcohol in stores or departments in stores that sell alcohol before 11am and between the hours of 2pm and 5pm. It is doubtful that this move has reduced alcoholism.
The ministry has not offered any statistics that it has. But it has caused inconvenience to shoppers and added stress to the clerks at the counter. It is totally absurd and also turns off tourists.
So what effective steps can Thailand take to combat alcoholism?
Perhaps Thailand can draw some clues from what has transpired in mainland China's most trendy city, Shanghai. At the end of 2005, the consumption figures for alcoholic beverages in Shanghai showed a dramatic shift. For the first time in history the
consumption of moderate-alcohol wine and beer topped spirits. This result is not a chance occurrence; it is a result of Chinese government policy. In 1987, the Chinese government began urging citizens to consume more beer and wine and less spirits to
reduce alcohol-related health problems.
So where is Thailand on this progressive path to better public health? It appears nowhere. Completely lost, without a clue, is the Excise Department.
About four years ago at a holiday wine tasting, this writer bumped into the then Public Health Minister, Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan.
After the traditional exchange of opening pleasantries, I told Sudarat that the country's excise tax policies did not mesh with its public health goals to contain alcoholism. She looked me in the eye and said, ' You have made your point ,'
shrugged her shoulders and then walked away. It seems even very powerful politicians are humbled by the intransigence of the Excise Department and its relationship with the liquor industry.
But Sudarat is not alone; add Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to the list of politicians who have seen their power diminished by the people at Excise. On May 28, 2005, Mr Thaksin proposed a reasonable solution to rectify the excise tax on alcoholic
beverages. During his weekly Saturday morning radio broadcast he suggested that alcoholic beverages should be taxed according to the amount of alcohol they contain, that is the ''international standard'', he said, and it is. That is what China has
In October 2005, the Excise Department trotted out its tax revision. What they did was to cobble together the traditional ''ad valorem'' tax (cost of production) with a coating or veneer of the international standard that has created a multi-headed
monster that appears to be the worst of both systems. The Excise spokesman who presented the new tax structure said it would ''take longer'' to study a more comprehensive revision of the tax method on alcoholic beverages. Most people construed that
statement as bluffing on the issue.
Without the cooperation of the Excise Department, Thailand will continue to be a whiskey-inebriated country and the Public Health Ministry's efforts will damage the economy but not curb alcoholism.
Unless the excise policy is re-jigged to address the problem of consumption of high-proof whiskey through taxation and education, Thailand will continue to have an ineffective grasp on the drinking issue.
Implementing the ''international standard'' of alcoholic beverage taxation combined with education could help Thailand get a grasp of the drinking problem and even increase tourist revenues at hotels and restaurants, rather than the prohibitionist
tactics currently being proposed.