Law well past sell-by date in beer scandal

Law well past sell-by date in beer scandal

Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun once said that for Thailand to become a full democracy, one condition is that the country will have to establish rule of law, not rule by law, because Thai laws are very backward. The controversy over "selfies with alcohol" seems to illustrate this point.

Although the Alcohol Control Act has been in force since 2008, the law seems to have just come into the public spotlight following an outcry over celebrities who posted photos of themselves with Chang beer in what appeared to be an advertising campaign.

Thai Beverage Plc, the producer of Chang, denied paying the two dozen or so entertainment figures to advertise its alcoholic products. Two female celebrities who reported to police on Sunday also said they were not paid to post the photos as part of an advertising campaign. However, they admitted to uploading the beer selfies on their Instagram accounts to promote the product as goodwill gestures to help a friend.

Although it is difficult to believe it was merely coincidental that some top celebrities would have chosen to upload similar photos of themselves with Chang beer and similar messages encouraging people to drink it at the same time, the scepticism may have to take a back seat.

The real issue with the beer selfies emerged when police said that it is not just celebrities or well-known figures who are barred from showing photos of alcoholic drinks but ordinary people will be subject to punishment if they do so too. Strange as it may sound, the cops have a point if we consider the letter of the law.

Section 32 of the 2008 Alcohol Control Act bans "anyone" from advertising alcoholic drinks and from showing the names and logos of alcoholic drinks to "promote" them. Those who break the law face a jail term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 500,000 baht, or a daily fine of 50,000 baht throughout the period of violation.

Still, many people found the police's interpretation of the Alcohol Control Act to be overzealous. In response, they have taken to posting photos of alcoholic drinks, or bottles of rubbing alcohol for less brash souls, as a protest gesture.

Will the police go after these arbitrary protest postings? I guess not. Indeed, they should not. But does the latest controversy expose shortcomings with the alcohol control law? Definitely, in my view.

Take the case of the celebrities' beer snaps as an example. With the beer company denying the uploads were part of a commercial campaign and the celebs insisting they did so out of altruistic intentions, what legal grounds would the police have left to go after them?

Sarawut Benjakul, head of the Institute of Legal Education of the Thai Bar Association, suggested authorities look at the intention. People who "intentionally" encourage other people to drink alcohol may be found to have broken the law.

But it often is difficult to prove someone's intention. How can authorities prove that one person's uploading of a photo showing a glass of chilled champagne against the background of a setting sun has the  intention of promoting the drink more than one showing a young woman grinning besides a row of liquor bottles?

When the law is overarching in its attempt to criminalise and control certain activities and intention is needed to prove if someone has broken the law, it often results in selective treatment which then leads to double standards. This seems to be the case with the alcohol advertising control act.

The Alcohol Research Centre at the Ministry of Public Health stated in a 2013 study that while the alcohol advertising control is short of a total ban, it remains among "best-buy policies" that are effective both in curbing alcohol consumption and deserving of being pursued further.

The same study, however, noted that the nature of alcohol "advertising" changed markedly after the Alcohol Control Act came into place. Instead of direct commercials, alcohol sellers have resorted to more subtle means of promotion including use of feel-good social responsibility projects and celebrity influencers which not only bypass the law but develop the culture of drinking more effectively than traditional advertising.

The question, therefore, is whether the alcohol advertising control law which relies on a cruder form of direct control and personal judgement of violators' intentions will remain effective after the situation has evolved.

In the bigger picture, the selfies with beer controversy brings into question whether a fervent morality drive and reliance on strict controls should remain a form of problem solving in a society that has become increasingly diversified.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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