Anti-alcohol groups oppose FTAs

Anti-alcohol groups oppose FTAs

Health experts warn of cheap booze influx

SEOUL - Governments must not allow international trade treaties such as Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) to undermine efforts to protect the public from the dangers of alcohol, the Seoul Declaration on alcohol control announced yesterday.

The declaration was endorsed by more than 850 health experts and anti-alcohol advocates from 55 countries at the second Global Alcohol Policy Conference in the South Korean capital.

It urges governments to ensure that "bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements do not invalidate or limit national efforts to establish and enforce evidence-based policies to reduce alcohol-related harm".

These policies include government monopolies on alcohol distribution, minimum pricing, health-oriented taxation and restrictions on availability and marketing of alcohol products.

The declaration corresponds with civil society concerns over the possible impacts of including liquor products in the ongoing free trade negotiations between Thailand and the European Union, Thai Health Promotion Foundation deputy chief executive Supreda Adulyanon said.

He said since alcohol is a product that is harmful to public health, it should not be treated as an ordinary commodity in the trade talks.

The latest round of Thai-EU free trade talks was held in Chiang Mai last month.

The next round will be held in Brussels, Belgium in December and the talks are expected to wrap up late next year.

Health and consumer activists have expressed concerns over the trade deal, particularly the provisions dealing with a zero tariff on alcohol products, which could lead to an influx of cheap European alcoholic beverages, Mr Supreda said.

Bundit Sornpaisarn, director of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation's bureau of major health risk factors control, said studies conducted in many countries have confirmed that alcohol tax cuts and low prices have led to a spike in alcohol consumption.

He cited as an example a sharp rise in imports to Thailand of alcohol products from Asean countries. They have gone up by five times since the Asean Free Trade Agreement (Afta) came into effect in 1992.

Afta requires Asean countries to cut tariff rates on a wide range of products, including alcohol, to 0-5% by 2015.

"If alcohol products are included in the Thai-EU FTA, it is likely the increase in alcohol imports and consumption will be similar to what happened after Afta," Dr Bundit said.

"Our ultimate call is that liquor products must be excluded from the FTA. But if they are eventually included, the government has to compensate with tougher alcohol control measures."He said those measures might include tying alcohol tax rates to the inflation rate, limiting access to alcohol selling points and tightening restrictions on alcohol advertising.

Thomas Babor, chairman of the University of Connecticut Health Centre's department of community medicine and health care, said pressure from the EU will challenge Thailand's alcohol control efforts.

"This challenge is not only for Thailand but for many countries, so Thailand needs to work with public health advocates in other countries to deal with this issue to protect its own sovereignty and ability to regulate alcohol internally," Mr Babor said.

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