No one can doubt the sincerity of the young anti-alcohol activists who quietly gathered outside Government House last week to oppose cabinet approval of the free trade agreement between Thailand and the European Union. Happily, their protest lacked the unnecessary drama of the previous one held at the same venue two years ago during which sandalwood flowers, more commonly used in cremation ceremonies, were burned to put a curse on alcoholic drinks. Neither demonstration slowed the course of the trade pact and the draft framework has received the approval of the cabinet and the Council of State and is being tabled for parliamentary debate. The clock is ticking.
At issue is a provision that would abolish the high import tax on alcoholic beverages, a move that has received the enthusiastic backing of hotel, entertainment and restaurant businesses but which opponents fear could make alcohol products cheaper and more easily available. It is true that such imports from the EU are considerable and valued in excess of 5 billion baht a year but the proposed trade liberalisation pact goes far beyond this and covers other issues that will need careful debate. These include such items as drug patents, vehicles and auto parts, textiles, dairy products, jewellery, steel, plastics, electrical appliances and electronics.
The stakes are high with the value of Thai exports going to the EU more than double that of those coming the other way. It makes the EU one of the country's largest export markets after Asean, with trade worth 27 billion euros (1.15 trillion baht) in 2010. What sets the free trade agreement apart as an issue unworthy of legislative delay is the need to minimise the impact on Thai exports when the generalised system of preferences (GSP) expires in 2015. Last year these GSP privileges totalled 297 billion baht from automotive exports, electronics, including hard disk drives and seafood products. Only India received more GSP privileges.
What the anti-alcohol campaigners must realise is that such a huge trading imbalance makes it hard to cherry-pick what the government can and cannot agree to. The thorny issue of drug patents is creating more alarm than alcohol in some quarters. Simply maintaining the status quo is not an option. At least those favouring further restrictions on the sale of alcohol can take solace in the recent government measures banning the consumption of alcoholic beverages in vehicles, the increase in "sin" taxes and the sensible prohibition on selling and drinking alcohol in factories.
There is no doubt that alcohol abuse is a huge problem in our society. It fuels crimes of violence, especially domestic violence, and drink driving. Some of the worst offenders are young people and it drains money from families who can least afford it. Alcohol consumption also gets the blame for many problems such as unwanted pregnancies, abortions, murders, and gambling among students and adults. But treating everyone as a potential abuser is discriminatory and unfair. The target should be problem drinkers, not the vast majority of responsible people who indulge in an occasional social drink.
What causes many people to lose control is not expensive alcohol imports from Europe but the demon at the other end of the market called lao khao, or white spirits. In terms of volume, lao khao accounts for some 66% of all alcoholic beverages consumed; in terms of actual alcohol content, it accounts for more than 75%. It is profitable, cheap and often lethal. There is no danger of such toxic and dangerous firewater being exported to Thailand by the EU because it is banned in most member countries, just as it should be here.