By David Swartzentruber who has lived in Thailand for more than six years
and, in the United States, worked as a psychologist treating alcoholism.
From the Bangkok Post
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 why.
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
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.
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
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 done.
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
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.