Thais get sober message: ban liquor ads

A proposed law may forbid liquor ads in Thailand, but critics see little correlation between ads and sales.

Off Silom Road, down a soi crowded with tourists, past the plethora of massage parlors crowded with ladies in skimpy sequined dresses that leave little to the imagination, Panida Pattantrikul is hard at work in a local pub.

Like thousands of other girls in bars throughout Asia's notorious sin city, the 22-year-old college student acts as a living advertisement for whatever alcohol brandname graces the tight dress she wears on a given night.

But her sexy threads may soon need to be altered. Thailand's military-appointed government is on the verge of passing a law that would ban alcohol companies from advertising various beer and liquor brands. Only corporate logos would be allowed.

"No matter what I wear or what advertising they ban, people are still going to drink," says Ms. Panida, a marketing major who pays for her own tuition and expenses at a respected Bangkok university. "If the government wants people to stop drinking, they should just ban alcohol."

That's exactly what activists like Vironrong Ratanachaya are hoping for. The ad ban, combined with measures to clamp down on "erotic dancing" and jackpot lotteries, are aimed at shoring up the political support of thousands of quixotic Buddhist activists in Bangkok's middle class who want the country to wage war against perceived Western influences.

"I totally agree with the ban," says Ms. Vironrong. "If we have this, then Thai society can start to clean up. We can start with alcohol and move to other things, like shampoo commercials, which show women in two-piece bathing suits," she says. "This is ugly and against Thai beliefs. There is just no censorship anymore – and this is bad."

Vironrong and others helped organize tens of thousands of people last year to protest the listing of Thai Beverage, the country's largest alcohol producer, on the local stock exchange. They see a gush of booze and sex pulling the country's youths away from the temple, and they want the government to take some sort of action.

On this point, the military leaders took a cue from deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose administration launched a social order campaign a few years ago that forced bars to close at 2 a.m. and made nude dancers wear bikini bottoms.

"In a way the pendulum is swinging to the conservative side after five years of open, liberal market forces," says Surichai Wungaeo, who heads the Center for Social Development Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "People like to make money off of vice, but not if it involves their daughters. It's important to open up this debate."

While Mr. Thaksin managed for five years to placate Bangkok's middle class, which has a penchant for kicking out leaders they see as immoral, he eventually lost legitimacy among urban elites after the tax-free sale of a family company made him appear greedy. Now the military-appointed rulers are trying to shore up their morality credentials to keep better-off Bangkokians happy even as wealthy city kids pack the trendiest clubs every weekend.

Last week, the administration of appointed premier Surayud Chulanont approved a bill that would raise the legal drinking age to 20 from 18 and impose jail terms for alcohol executives who promote products or advertise in print, television, radio, online, or in outdoor media. The law is scheduled to come into effect in January, pending a legal review and a stamp of approval from the junta-appointed legislature.

Although the new measures may help boost a government that has stumbled repeatedly since taking power in a bloodless coup on Sept. 19, many question whether something as superficial as an ad ban will do anything to sober up a country known internationally for its loose living.

As far back as 1901, a Bangkok newspaper noted: "It need hardly be said that Bangkok is a samshoo-drinking town." And though urban Thais may have traded samshoo, a Chinese liquor distilled from rice, for Sangsom, a $3-per-bottle whiskey, they are still drinking in droves.

On average, each Thai will consume 44.8 liters of alcohol this year, Asia's third-highest rate behind Japan and South Korea, according to Citigroup Investment Research. That's three times more than Vietnam and seven times more than predominately Muslim Malaysia.

So will an ad ban actually turn Bangkok's party people into teetotalers? "We don't think so," says Vorathep Rangchaikul, president of Riche Monde (Bangkok), a wholly owned subsidiary of UK-based Diageo Plc. "Nor will it, more importantly, reduce alcohol abuse, which is something totally different from consumption."

Diageo, whose brands include Johnnie Walker, Guinness, and Smirnoff, studied countries that restrict ads – like Malaysia and Norway – and those that don't – like Australia and the US – and found little correlation between ads and sales.

Thailand Development Research Institute, an independent think tank, found much the same thing in a study on alcohol policy last year. The best way to reduce consumption and harm, it found, was to increase alcohol excise taxes, raise the cost of acquiring a liquor license, put alcohol sale restrictions in zoning laws, and set up more drunk-driving checkpoints.

Indeed, taxes are lowest on "lao khao," or white spirits, which comprises about 75 percent of the local market. The drinks, mostly consumed in rural areas, are seldom advertised.

"The major brands have been around for ages and most people know what they want before they walk into the bar," says Panida, the Silom beer girl. "It's already in their heads."

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