Regulate in moderation

Retailers and restaurant owners say a draconian law banning alcohol advertising is driving them out of business and hurting the economy

Photo: jcomp / freepik.com

'Section 32 has been very painful to me," said Wichian Inkraidee, an owner of Kacha Kacha, a Japanese restaurant. He was blacklisted and faced a hefty fine for breaking the draconian alcohol law. In the last hour of 2014, an inspector on patrol found an image of a glass of beer on the menu, which was claimed to promote drinking.

Wichian did not face the charge of "advertising alcohol" on the spot, but received a summons three days before its six-month prosecution period expired. If he had given in, he would have paid a fine of 50,000 baht. But the fight for justice cost him dearly. He lost two legal battles and paid a penalty of nearly 600,000 baht.

"It has gone from bad to worse. I am now placed on a criminal case blacklist. I am a shooting athlete who has been denied a gun licence [Por 3] because of criminal history," he told a forum on the impact of the alcohol control law at the Jam Factory last week.

Implemented in 2008, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act covers rules for alcohol sales and consumption, alcoholic treatment and penalties. It seeks to minimise the impact of alcohol on society, claiming it causes health and family problems, accidents and crimes. Three draft amendments are now in the pipeline.

Under the law, alcohol sales are banned from public venues and on religious days. It is only available for purchase in specific hours (11am-2pm and 5pm-midnight). However, Section 32 is arguably the most controversial. It bans advertising alcohol or displaying the name or logo of alcohol to show qualities or induce drinking.

Wichian is not the only business operator who has borne the brunt of harsh enforcement. Prapavee Hematat, the owner of Group B Beer, sold Thai craft beer on a website, but a new ban on electronic sales is causing a big problem. Despite opposition, officials said the rule is to prevent underage drinking.

"In fact, alcohol consumers must have ID cards and addresses, which can be used for verifying their identity. Officials said they would reconsider the idea. But after the law took effect, I received a notice for violation late last year," she said. "I haven't reported myself due to the coronavirus pandemic."

Section 30 bans alcohol sales through a wide range of channels from vending machines to sales promotions and allows officials to prohibit any other recommended means. The Office of the Prime Minister made an announcement outlawing electronic sales in December 2020, but it does not state what it covers.

Prapavee, a core member of the Craft Beer Association, said selling alcohol on her website will lead to another charge of advertisement, but vowed to proceed with the case in the hope of setting a new standard. A lot of business operators are suffering from heavy-handed alcohol policing.

"We are fighting to let officials know they can't make money this way. Wichian's case is discouraging, but we must speak out. Some cases will probably be dropped. For example, a public prosecutor decided not to pursue the case of Laab Lung Yao," she said.

An eatery owner was charged with advertising alcohol in August 2020 after inspectors dropped by his restaurant and took photos of alcoholic beverages on the menu almost two years ago. An official told him that it is illegal, but did not press charges on the spot.

Besides the alcohol control law, the coronavirus pandemic has chased off dine-in drinkers. Niks Anuman-Rajadhon, the founder of Teens of Thailand, closed his gin bar temporarily following the government's order of a two-week closure in March 2020. He cleared stock to stay afloat by offering home delivery of gin and tonic.

"At the time, I didn't have an online channel. Eventually, I was charged with displaying labels and selling gin together with tonic because they are considered sales promotion. In fact, they are standard drinks, which can generate a huge income," he said.

Niks said the blanket rule affects business operators who need to inform consumers of alcoholic beverages. Section 32 should be scrapped or at least revised to make its application clearer because it covers direct and indirect advertisement of alcohol. "The term 'indirect advertisement' should be left out because official discretion is problematic," he said.

Thanakorn Kuptajit, secretary-general of the Thai Alcohol Beverage Business Association, told local media the coronavirus caused the sector to slump to 240 billion baht in 2021, down from the previous year's figure of 300 billion baht. The industry earned 370 billion baht in 2019.

Some business operators flout the ban outright. Sa-nga Ruangwattanakul, president of the Khao San Road Business Association, said they sell alcohol after hours because the majority of foreign tourists in the neighbourhood drink alcohol regularly. Restriction stalls business, particularly in tourist destinations.

"Some rules are not friendly to tourists. How can we turn them down for alcohol? It is their normal practice. If you visit Khao San today, you will see foreigners walking and drinking beer," he said. "Khao San is entertainment. Banning alcohol does not make sense."

Currently, there are three draft amendments to the alcohol control law. Asst Prof Charoen Charoenchai, lecturer in food science and technology at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, has tabled a proposal to relax the law. Backed by over 10,000 signatures, it is in queue for deliberation by the House of Representatives.

It seeks to allow advertising alcohol without exaggerating its qualities. It also allows for alcohol to be sold in vending machines, at a discount, or via sales campaigns. It will also scrap the "snitch" rule. At present, a notifier is offered up to 80% of a total fine.

Sponsored by an anti-alcohol network, a second version seeks to tighten rules. Backed by over 90,000 signatures, it is going through an online public hearing. Similarly, the Office of the Alcohol Control Committee under the Department of Disease Control is revising its draft to keep a tighter rein. It will ban advertising alcohol via other products or promotional activities.

Dr Nipon Chinanonwet, director of the Office of Alcohol Control Committee, joined the forum on the 14th anniversary of the law last month. He reportedly said there are almost 600,000 small retailers, some of whom are not legal. It is not surprising that an enforcement of the alcohol control law has met opposition.

"It is intended to minimise the impact on society and health. It complies with the World Health Organization. If we liberalise alcohol sales, big businesses will crush small retailers," he said.

Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Law, said the government should take responsibility for managing conflict, not supporting a single course of action. When it comes to alcohol, it should find a balance between health and economy. Moreover, curbs do not wipe out alcohol.

"In fact, anti-alcohol groups are tipping the balance in favour of big brewers. Your mission to save the world increases monopoly," he said.

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