Letter From Bangkok

Amid pandemic, alcohol sellers in Thailand grapple with longer-term restrictions

Shelves holding alcoholic beverages sealed off with plastic in a Bangkok grocery store in May 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - A small crowd forms in the Bangkok hypermarket as a staff member hauls out boxes of beer. The customers - all wearing masks - are so restless that another employee has to hold them back while the pallet truck is being wheeled down the aisle.

All restraint disappears as soon as the boxes are put in place. Eager men and equally determined women lunge at the boxes, tearing off their shrink wrap. They jostle to the front of the scrum and lug away the closest available box. In less than a minute, all the beer is gone.

This scene, captured in a video that was circulated widely online, unfolded in May last year after the lifting of a weeks-long ban on the sale of alcohol that was imposed to contain Thailand's first coronavirus outbreak.

Bemused Thais joked about their countrymen's love for booze.

"Our country doesn't race for toilet paper, but whiskey and beer," Twitter user @justmemoir posted.

These days, amid creeping and more lasting restrictions on alcohol, the mood is somewhat heavier. Drinkers and alcohol enterprises allege that prohibitionists are using the pandemic to push their agenda, and fear that ongoing changes to laws will kill small alcohol enterprises altogether.

Long-term restrictions on alcohol

Since the start of the pandemic, Bangkok - like many governments around the world trying to curb unnecessary socialising - has dialled up and dialled down alcohol restrictions according to the risk of Covid-19 transmission in the country.

In February, with Bangkok restaurants not allowed to serve alcoholic beverages, bar owners and brewers representing the

Thai Craft Beer Association protested by emptying kegs and bottles of the brew into a drain by the Health Ministry's building.

Thailand, now in its third Covid-19 wave and struggling with thousands of daily new cases as hospitals fill up rapidly, has shut all entertainment venues such as bars and clubs, depriving them of the alcohol sales they rely on for much of their revenue.

The government has also enacted more lasting restrictions on alcohol. Last December, it banned the online sale of alcohol - something that bars had turned to after they were shut.

Meanwhile, proposed draft changes to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act will inflate the penalties imposed on direct or indirect advertisements for alcohol. If they are passed, an offender risks a 500,000 baht (S$20,700) fine, 10 times the current penalty. If the guilty party is the owner of an alcohol business, he or she stands to be fined one million baht.

The proposed changes have been condemned by artisan brewers, who have long struggled to challenge the duopoly of home-grown companies Boon Rawd Brewery and Thai Beverage, also known as ThaiBev. Unlike the two giants, the artisan brewers argue, small businesses do not have the financial muscle to survive the new restrictions.

Thailand's laws already ban advertisements for alcohol. But the visibility of the country's most popular beer brands is very high, because companies behind them bottle drinking or soda water with the same logos as their beers - and plaster billboards with their advertisements. Both Singha and Chang beers, among the most popular beers in Thailand, have drinking-water namesakes.

A sign at a restaurant in Bangkok in January informing customers that no alcohol sales are allowed. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Craft beer brewers say the playing field is tilted too unevenly towards the giants.

Home-brewing activist turned lawmaker Taopiphop Limjittrakorn said small players need to rely on social media rather than brick-and-mortar channels to reach their customers because of their small budgets.

If enacted, the draft legal amendments will probably sound the death knell for small alcohol enterprises, he told The Sunday Times, pointing out: "How can they compete?"

He added: "We want to make a fair society, where people can enjoy good beer and have alternative beers as other countries do."

Is alcohol a scapegoat?

Regular drinkers question if alcohol has been made a scapegoat in Thailand's battle against Covid-19.

Recalling Thailand's strict lockdown measures last year, when even hair salons were closed, private utility contractor Nikorn Prichapol, 42, said: "That was stressful. They ordered us to stay home and then took away our few remaining sources of happiness. What's the problem with people staying home to drink?"

Over a decade ago, the Buddhist-majority country banned the sale of alcohol during Buddhist religious holidays. In 2015, the government prohibited the sale of alcohol within 300m of higher-education buildings. Business hours were also curtailed.

According to the World Health Organisation, Thais drank 8.3 litres of pure alcohol per person in 2016, putting them on a par with Vietnamese (8.3 litres) and behind Laotians (10.4 litres), South-east Asia's heaviest drinkers. In Singapore, the figure was 2 litres.

Despite concerted campaigns to encourage responsible drinking over the past years, drink driving is still a major cause of accidents during Thai festivals.

The losses from alcohol consumption, including injuries and early death, amounted to 85 billion baht in 2017, or 0.56 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product, according to the Centre for Alcohol Studies.

The pandemic has given plenty of ammunition to prohibitionists. A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in May found that harmful effects of drinking alcohol were intensified by the Covid-19 crisis.

Women, parents of young children, and people with anxiety and depression were among the groups that reported the highest increase in alcohol consumption during lockdowns in Australia, Belgium, France, Britain and the United States. Emergency calls about domestic violence, which is associated with harmful alcohol consumption, rose 60 per cent in European Union countries, it said.

Dr Wit Wichaidit, a research fellow at the Centre for Alcohol Studies, thinks Thailand's alcohol advertising laws need to keep up with the rapid changes in the industry and technology that open loopholes.

"If a person or an agency in a country that does not ban alcohol advertisement creates a social media page that promotes alcohol to the Thai audience, is that a violation of Thai laws?" he asked.

The pandemic has only heightened Thailand's uneasy relationship with alcohol. A 65-year-old grocery shop owner, who would give her name only as Gaew, admits she breaks the law to keep her business afloat.

"The alcohol restrictions affect big stores and restaurants. Small shops like mine try to survive by selling it through the back door," she told The Sunday Times.

She observes, however, that sales of alcohol have dropped during the pandemic. "I think under these harsh economic conditions, few (people) can afford to drink so much anyway."

• With additional reporting by Kannikar Petchkaew

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