Bottoms up to clarity on alcohol laws
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Bottoms up to clarity on alcohol laws

Explainer: The two main parties trying to form a government seek reform to open up local beer and liquor production

The Move Forward Party's Progressive Liquor Bill aims to create fairer rules for small or community-based producers of alcohol. (Photo: supplied)
The Move Forward Party's Progressive Liquor Bill aims to create fairer rules for small or community-based producers of alcohol. (Photo: supplied)

Last year on Nov 2, the Progressive Liquor Bill proposed by the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) almost won approval with 194 votes in favour of from the House of Representatives, narrowly losing by two votes to 196 against the bill.

Almost seven months later, the bill has resurfaced in the public discussion as it was mentioned in the 23-point memorandum of understanding (MoU) that eight parties trying to form a coalition government signed on May 22.

The 10th point said the parties agree to work together to "abolish monopolies and promote fair competition in all industries, such as alcoholic beverages, with Prachachat Party reserving its right to disagree on the alcohol industry because of religious reasons."

A few days before the MoU signing, Piti Bhirombhakdi, board director of Boon Rawd brewery, echoed his support for the bill after social media users questioned him about the possible impact to the company. Boon Rawd is one of the two biggest players in the Thai alcohol industry.

Mr Piti said on his Facebook account he has agreed with the bill since it was drafted. Even though it might have some effect on Boon Rawd, he said the company agrees with the concept of liberal trade and has faced competition since it was established.

Boon Rawd already adjusted its business plan and diversified to other segments than beer production, said Mr Piti.

The market value of alcoholic drinks in Thailand was valued at 473 billion baht in 2020 and is expected to grow annually by 5.23% from 2023-27. The duopoly in the local beer industry controls a 92% market share, according to Krungsri Research in 2022.

Q: What are the main points of the Progressive Liquor Bill?

During the election campaigns, the bill was promoted as one of the MFP's signature pieces of legislation.

The bill aims to create fairer rules for the production of alcohol by small or community-based producers who want to showcase their output.

By amending Section 153 of the Excise Tax Act of 2017, more small and local brewers and distillers will be eligible to register for a licence.

The amendment removes requirements that have been criticised for favouring large producers, preventing small and medium-sized enterprises from entering the market.

Requiring a minimum capacity for local distilled beverage manufacturers, strict machinery rules, and mandatory environmental impact assessment reports are seen as obstacles for small producers with limited funds.

Last week MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat told representatives from the Thai Craft Beer Association the bill could be implemented in the first 100 days of a MFP-led government.

The amendment forms part of the party's economic policy to generate income and distribute wealth more equitably by turning farm output into value-added products and conserving local wisdom.

Mr Pita said he kept the term progressive from the house debate last year instead of using liberalisation because the bill does not seek to increase alcohol consumption, but rather to add value to existing products and present more opportunities for communities to sell their products to tourists, similar to how countries market local distilled spirits to visitors.

"The Progressive Liquor Bill is not liberalisation, as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha understood it. Under this law, brewers of all sizes would operate under the same rules," Mr Pita said last year.

"Passage of the bill would be victory for all."

Q: What is the most likely outcome for the bill?

The Pheu Thai Party, which with the MFP controls the bulk of the seats in the proposed coalition government, has its own bill to support local producers.

Pheu Thai's "Liquor for the People" policy aims to open up the beer and spirits industry to smaller players and end the market oligopoly.

When this bill was defeated in November last year, Pheu Thai expressed its disappointment in a statement and insisted the party will keep pushing this issue in the future.

Pheu Thai said new laws should allow local production for commercial purposes and enable small enterprises to earn more stable income.

The party said this policy is not part of a recent campaign, as it was introduced decades ago, but was interrupted by the military coup in 2006.

As both the MFP and Pheu Thai agree on unlocking competition in local alcohol production, there is a high likelihood the law will be amended in the next legislative session given the narrow defeat last year.

MFP deputy leader Sirikanya Tansakun said during an interview with a TV news programme the legislative process should be fast as the amendment to the excise laws can be done through a ministerial regulation, as happened last year.

Before the third reading of the Progressive Liquor Bill in the House of Representatives in November, the government immediately issued new ministerial regulations to unlock some licensing requirements, such as removing the mandatory registered capital amount and minimum capacity for fermented beverages.

The move was criticised as an attempt to capsize the bill, as the regulatory changes were announced just one day before the bill's reading.

Ms Sirikanya said the quick manoeuvre by the government proved ministerial regulations can be changed easily without delay if the government has the will.

She said the bill can be a priority policy of the coalition government once it takes office.

Q: What are the market shares of alcoholic beverages in other countries?

South Korea's alcoholic beverages market was worth US$25.2 billion in 2022, according to Expert Market Research.

Traditional spirits made from rice such as soju continued to dominate the Korean market at 33% of total beverage sales in 2021.

Soju also improved in the global market, making up 5% of volume in 2021 thanks to the popularity of the "Korean Wave" that embedded these products in its content, mainly in Asia-Pacific, according to IWSR's market analysis.

Japan, one of the biggest liquor markets, is expected to record value of $122 billion this year, with spirits making up $67.6 billion, according to Statista.

Sake, the traditional beverage made from fermented rice, comprises the largest share with 1,550 of 3,500 licensed liquor manufacturing sites in Japan.

In terms of the global market, Japanese sake was valued at $3.5 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach $4 billion in 2028, based on analysis from MarketWatch this year.

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