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Cambodia’s growing drinking problem

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
The number of traffic incidents and fatalities have risen since 2015. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Cambodia has a growing alcohol problem, but the severity of the situation seems to be masked underneath the confusing world of statistics and figures.

While many might take solace in knowing that Cambodia has yet to even come close to nabbing the top spot from the world’s drinking heavyweights, upon closer examination the figures actually paint a far more grim picture.

A report by the Asia Foundation in 2015 showed that Cambodian men are drinking 9.7 litres of pure alcohol in a year – 3.5 litres above the global average of annual alcohol consumption per capita. Furthermore, the study also found that Cambodian men tend to drink six times as much as their female counterparts.

In the decade following the start of the Cambodian economic boom, alcohol consumption has also increased in parallel, and these changing views as well as the patterns of alcohol consumption, can be seen among all subsets of the population.

While keeping all the aforementioned issues in mind, consider the following figures that were released by the National Police: In 2017, there were 3,531 recorded traffic incidents resulting in 1,780 fatalities, while in 2015, 3,700 traffic incidents were reported, with 1,717 fatalities.

“According to our findings, alcohol is the one of the main contributing factors of road-related fatalities, as we estimated that annually around 2,500 traffic incidents are caused by excessive alcohol consumption,” explained Dr Mom Kong, the executive director of the Cambodia Movement for Health, a local non-governmental organisation that has been working closely with the government to introduce more stringent regulations in order to curb the excessive consumption of alcohol among Cambodian youths.

A draft law on alcohol regulation was sumitted in 2015 and seemingly little progress has made on it since then. KT/Rama Ariadi

The Cambodia Movement for Health’s efforts to help bring the country’s growing drinking problem under control is not entirely unjustified. A World Health Organisation report released in 2015 found that more than one-tenth of Cambodians aged between 8-17 admitted to having consumed alcohol, while 82 percent of Cambodians aged between 18-32 said that they consume alcoholic beverages on a regular basis.

The government submitted a draft law on alcohol regulation in 2015 as part of its efforts to curb this alarming trend, but a simple gander along any neighbourhood street will show that despite the government’s move in the right direction, there is still room for improvement.

“The draft law that has been submitted is actually very lax and basic in terms of what it regulates,” explained Kong.

“And among the most serious areas that it fails to address is the issue of advertising of alcoholic beverages, as well as the rules that regulates the availability and distribution of said beverages.”

Whilst alcohol advertising across the country is generally aimed at foreigners, since these advertisements are so widespread, it has an impact on local residents as well – especially considering that the purchasing power of Cambodians is on the rise. Tastes are converging at a very fast rate, and this is reflected by the exponential rise of alcohol advertising that are specifically aimed at Cambodians – with the most significant jump observed in 2011, where beer advertising increased by 164 percent by the end of the 2011 financial year.

While Thailand has begun to tighten up its regulations relating to alcohol advertisements, such strides remain to be seen in Cambodia. Whereas Thailand passed its Alcohol Beverage Control Act in 2008, which contains rather draconian restrictions on how alcohol can be advertised by individuals on social media, Cambodia seems to be struggling with passing this draft law. In fact, discussion relating to the tightening control of alcohol advertisements seems to have stalled since the draft was first submitted in 2015.

For example, the regulation that prohibits the television broadcasting of alcohol beverages during certain periods in the day is rarely enforced. There are still watering holes with promotional billboards at premises that are located right in front of a secondary school. The decision to raise the drinking age to 21 has also been faced with problems because no one on the ground seems to be willing to enforce such restrictions.

While the Ministry of Health received the draft law in 2015, no significant progress seems to have been made. In fact, the Asia Foundation report released in 2015 found that the total revenue from alcohol advertising accounts for more than 50 percent of all advertising revenues in the country. Beer advertisements alone bring in around $100 million each year, and with the increasing number of foreign tourists that make their way into Cambodia, this figure is expected to continue to rise.

In 2017, around 5 million visitors came into the country, generating $3.4 billion in revenue or 13 percent of Cambodia’s Gross Domestic Product.

It is undoubtedly a very lucrative market that cannot be brushed aside, but it leaves one important question – can Cambodia strike a balance between maintaining the revenue stream from tourism and its associated industries while minimising its social impact?

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