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WHO report reveals Thailand is reeling under a liquor tsunami

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its "2014 Global report on alcohol and health" on May 12 and the statistics and trends are not good news for Thailand. The report has serious implications for Thailand's continued economic growth and the health and well-being of its labour force to achieve that growth.

The 392-page report contains a page on each of the 194 member-states of WHO as well as global rates of alcohol consumption for comparison.

The average amount of pure alcohol consumed in Thailand by each adult, (15 years and older), increased to 7.1 litres between 2008 and 2010, up from 6.8 litres between 2003 and 2005. The latest global average is 6.21 litres of alcohol per capita, but the figure for Southeast Asia is 3.4 litres per capita - less than half of Thailand's consumption rate. In various surveys published online, Thailand is ranked fourth-highest in the world for consumption of alcohol.

This is even more startling when you consider that 70.3 per cent of Thais are recorded as abstainers. The remaining 30 per cent more than make up for those who don't drink. The total alcohol consumption for Thai men in 2010 was 30.3 litres of pure alcohol and for women, 5.2 litres.

Moving to the health sector, Thailand received the highest rating of 5 for the number of "Years of Life Lost", based on 2012 data. Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver were 28. 2 per 100,000 citizens for men and 8.7 for women. The death rate for road accidents using the same criteria was 70.3 for men and 18.5 for women.

Amid the barrage of statistics, it is important to note the types of alcohol consumed by Thais. In Thailand, 73 per cent of the alcohol consumed is spirits, 27 per cent is beer, while wine is less than 1 per cent.

Let's compare that profile with neighbouring Myanmar's. Although supposedly a less advanced country than Thailand, Myanmar's alcohol-use profile resembles that of some Western countries: 6 per cent wine, 12 per cent spirits and 82 per cent beer.

The profile of the United States is 12 per cent spirits, 40 per cent wine and 48 per cent beer.

Cause and effect

To trace the cause of Thailand's poor showing in the WHO report one only has to walk down the aisle of any store here that sells alcohol.

On the liquor shelf I noted the price of Thailand's top-selling whiskey - Bt239 for a 70cl bottle of Hong Thong (35 per cent alcohol). Next to it was the even cheaper Song Sam -Bt271 and 40 per cent proof. On the next shelf down, Rongkaw white spirits (popularly known as lao khao), the world's second largest spirits brand according to trade publication the Shanken Daily Report, was just Bt99 for 40 per cent alcohol.

Looking across the aisle, I spied three solitary bottles of wine produced in Thailand. I chose one for reference, the Siam White Blend 2012 vintage produced by Siam Winery, a 750ml bottle with 12.5 per cent alcohol priced at Bt299.

Thailand's most recent change to excise tax on alcohol came in September 2013. Beer and wine saw significant tax increases, while lao khao and other spirits saw only minor increases. While this may keep the pockets of Thai liquor barons well-lined, it is and has been a disaster for Thailand's health and social fabric.

A major issue is that the Thai Public Health Ministry, as well as other health agencies, do not have any input on excise tax policy. Then-Finance Minister Kittirong na Ranong said September's change was made according to "ministerial regulation". In other words, behind closed doors.

Most certainly, alcoholism has become such a major issue in Thailand that there should be public hearings of stakeholders in the industry when a change in the excise tax is contemplated. Participants could include the Thai Hotel Association, Tourism Authority of Thailand, owners of five-star hotels, importers and distributors of alcohol products, owners of Thai distilleries and consumer groups.

Health groups have helped push through various regulations, apparently to show that they are capable of doing something. The most ridiculous is the ban on the sale of alcohol from 2 to 5pm in stores. The ill-conceived concept behind this move was that it would prevent "schoolboys" from obtaining alcohol. However, the last time I looked at a schoolboy, he appeared to be well below the legal drinking age of 20. This regulation is a prime example of bureaucratic overkill and those behind it have since let it be known that the measure simply does not work.

One of the goals of any successful alcohol programme is to move drinkers toward drinks that contain less alcohol, for example beer and wine rather than spirits. The main legislative vehicle to make that move is usually the tax structure, but that concept has not penetrated political minds in Thailand.

Although editorial writers in both of Thailand's English-language newspapers recently suggested that education and enforcement of laws against drunk driving were keys to alcohol control, I suggest that those are mid- to long-term goals. How long will it take to reform the curriculum in Thai schools as well as reform the traffic police?

Without question, the first step is to actually tax the amount of alcohol in beverages, which simply is not being done at this time.

The WHO report can be viewed at http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/en/.

David Swartzentruber worked as a clinical psychologist in the United States, dealing with the medical and social issues involved with alcoholism.


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