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Alcoholic abuse must be stopped
Monday,  2/4/2019, 08:30 

Alcoholic abuse must be stopped

By Dao Quang Minh

A “beer street” in Vietnam. The country’s lawmakers should pay adequate attention to health problems and the cost of addressing consequences of alcoholism as well as its effects on young generations - PHOTO: LA ANH

Tet, the Lunar New Year, is a merry time when a huge amount of alcoholic beverages are consumed. In this context, more specific and drastic measures are urgently needed to put alcoholic beverage production and consumption under control. Such measures may be a prelude to the reduction of and accessibility to alcohol in a bid to gradually curb alcoholic abuse among Vietnamese young people.

Trying to escape from the scorching heat, I stopped by a 7-Eleven convenience store on Sukhumvit Boulevard in Bangkok, Thailand, to seize some beer cans. I took all the cans to a young female cashier there. Much to my surprise, the girl politely pointed to a wall clock that said 2:15 p.m. “We do not sell beer during this hour,” she said in broken English.

I irritably wondered why I was denied access to the beer cans during daytime, and felt uneasy. To quench my thirst, I had to walk a long distance, passing through a series of kiosks selling Thai T-shirts and souvenirs. Finally, I found a restaurant selling Western food where I was able to order a bottle of Singha beer and some snacks to sip and ponder over the inconvenience.

I later found out that the regulation has been enacted by the Thai Government. Subsequently, stores and supermarkets are requested not to sell alcoholic beverages from 2p.m. to 5p.m. everyday. The reason is that the Thai  Government wants to restrict children—particularly high school students—from buying alcoholic drinks. It is argued that 2p.m. is the earliest time during the day for a student to leave school and 5p.m. is the time students are supposed to be at home with their parents. Banning the sale of alcohol during that period may help reduce the chance of students and other young people buying alcoholic drinks.

The regulation is in stark contrast to what is happening in Vietnam where alcoholic beverages can be found everywhere, especially in rural areas. You may be invited to drink liquor or beer when paying a visit to anybody who is close enough. When doing the previous job, I often went to many rural and mountainous localities throughout the country. Wherever I arrived, I was frequently offered a glass of alcohol. For people with low alcohol tolerance, this is really a torture.

Treating visitors, either at home or at work, with alcohol is regarded as a symbol of hospitality. For people in the highlands, declining a cup of alcohol is associated with a lack of enthusiasm or sociability. After consuming alcohol, or even getting drunk, people are supposed to share their stories more easily and make their relationship closer. Although many of my colleagues are against this questionable practice, they have no other choice but to accept it and see it as a career risk.

Liquor is a popular drink in rural and mountainous areas. Each region has its different kinds of specialty liquor which are mainly home-made from rice, maize or cassava. There are some very famous kinds of liquor, most of which are without traceable origins, brands and quality standard registration. In essence, consumers entrust their alcohol consumption to the prestige of suppliers. In case of alcohol poisoning, victims have nobody to blame on, but suffer themselves.

In urban areas, alcoholic beverages are also widely sold. For example, there is always a noisy and crowded tavern on each street section in Hanoi or HCMC from noon till late night. Their customers are people from all walks of life and ages—young, middle-aged, and older adults. People go on drinking for a wide variety of reasons—socializing, relaxing after work, meeting friends, and discussing jobs. They drink, either happy or sad. Unlike other countries, Vietnam has adopted a culture that is very open to drinking. Some of my colleagues from a South Asian nation take advantage of their business trips to Vietnam to be in revelries because alcoholic drinks are banned in public places in their home country.

It is commonplace here in Vietnam for young people to be at a bar. Those youths in their school uniforms innocently enjoy alcohol and chat noisily. A research project implemented by the Hanoi University of Public Health shows 44% of Vietnamese students had their first glass of beer before 14, and 22.5% of them became drunk at least once. It also shows that a staggering 80% of male adolescents and young adults drunk alcohol, and the corresponding figure for females was 36%.

Social burden

Vietnam, which is home to over 96 million people, is a potential market when it comes to economic benefits for alcoholic beverage manufacturers. Therefore, many internationally-renowned beer brands—such as the Netherlands’ Heineken, the United Kingdom’s SABMiller, and Denmark’s Carlsberg—have set up shop in Vietnam. Meanwhile, major Asian breweries—Kirin and Asahi of Japan, Asia Pacific Breweries of Singapore, Thai Beverage and Singha—are also competing fiercely to gain market share in Vietnam. As reported by the local mass media, Thai Beverage spent billions of U.S. dollars to gain the control of Saigon Beer, Alcohol and Beverage Joint Stock Corporation (Sabeco)— one of the largest breweries in Vietnam. On October 30th, the board of directors of Sabeco issued a resolution approving the unrestricted foreign ownership percentage in Sabeco. And, in fact, it has been almost a wholly foreign-owned company.

However, the economic profit of the business fails to match health and economic benefits of society.

Addressing a recent session of the National Assembly, Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien quoted a statement of the Government about the draft Law on Preventing and Combating Harmful Effects of Liquor and Beer as saying that Vietnamese consumed about 305 million liters of liquor and nearly 4.1 billion liters of beer, equivalent to 72 million and 161 million liters of alcohol, respectively, in 2017. That means, on average, each Vietnamese gulps down some 42 liters of beer in one year. Vietnam is the biggest beer consumer in Southeast Asia and the third largest beer-consuming Asian country trailing only Japan and China. In 2017, the cost of beer consumption in Vietnam was nearly US$4 billion.

The total medical treatment cost of six kinds of cancer caused by alcoholic drinks is estimated at nearly VND26 trillion (US$1.1 billion), accounting for 0.5% of the nation’s total gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017. Meanwhile, the cost of dealing with the consequences of traffic accidents involving driving under the influence made up 1% of GDP last year, or about VND50 trillion.

According to the Vietnam Food Association under the Ministry of Health, cases of alcohol poisoning were reported in 22 out of 63 Vietnamese cities and provinces, or 34.9% of the total in 2017. The number of such cases, especially those involving methanol alcohol, also increased dramatically with 10 cases and 119 patients—of this 115 people were hospitalized in the same year. There were really serious cases: in Phong Tho District, Lai Chau Province on February 13th, 2017, nine people died at a time because of the poison in their alcoholic drinks.

A study in 11 provinces in 2015 conducted by the People’s Police Academy shows that there were up to 70% of criminal cases involving alcoholic beverage abuse among people under 30. Students drinking alcoholic beverages may lead to social problems such as high school dropout rates, violence and conflicts among family members and friends, as well as unsafe sexual encounters. Their consumption causes more adverse effects on students’ physical development, compared with adults’ because the brain system is not fully grown until one turns 25. Alcoholic drinks may make the brain of a teenager vulnerable and expose that young drinker to a high risk of addiction.

As alcoholic beverages can help producers gain lucrative profit, it is easy to understand who are behind lobbying activities intended to have influence on the draft law so as to create favorable conditions for the businesses involved. However, lawmakers should pay adequate attention to health problems and the cost of addressing consequences of alcoholism as well as its effects on young generations.

The draft Law on Preventing and Combating Harmful Effects of Liquor and Beer embraces some articles which require consideration. However, advocates have argued that the National Assembly should pass the law only when more specific and drastic measures in the production and consumption management of alcohol are spectified. They should offer some solutions to alcoholic demand reduction and accessibility restriction, such as imposing taxes, limiting the selling hours and minimum legal drinking age of consumers—for instance, marketing restriction and gradual reduction of alcohol abuse among Vietnamese young people.

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