Should Vietnam drink more liquor or less? NA debates

By Minh Nga, Hung Le   November 18, 2018 | 11:28 pm PT
Should Vietnam drink more liquor or less? NA debates
Men drink beer at a roadside restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Reuters/Kham
Some National Assembly deputies fret over economic impacts of curbing alcohol consumption, others argue alcoholism causes much greater losses.

In Vietnam, alcohol is big business.

Every evening, people of all ages, mostly men, fill large beer halls for drinks after a long day at work.

Multinational brewers find the Vietnamese market very attractive, and foreign brands like Heineken and Sapporo are hugely popular as are local ones like Saigon Special, 333, Hanoi and Truc Bach.

Foreign companies have already bought stakes in local brewing giants like the Saigon Alcohol Beer and Beverages Corporation (Sabeco) and the Hanoi Beer Alcohol and Beverage Jsc., (Habeco).

However, there are worries that the drinking habit is causing socio-economic problems that can worsen without curbs on consumption and marketing.

A draft bill prepared by the Ministry of Health proposing several such curbs is currently being debated in the National Assembly (NA).

The draft bill on the prevention of dangers of alcohol contains several prohibitions including: promotion in any manner of liquor with alcohol content of 15 degrees or more; ban on use of positive phrases like "medicinal alcohol", "nutritious alcohol" in product labels; advertising of alcohol during television prime time (6-9 p.m.); ban on sale of alcohol to persons under 18; and a ban on online alcohol sales.

Vietnam already bans advertisements for hard alcohol.

Responsible drinkers, lawful sellers

Several of the draft bill’s provisions were objected to by some National Assembly deputies and industry insiders.

Phan Thai Binh, deputy head of the National Assembly's delegation from central Quang Nam Province, said Vietnam should focus on controlling the "abuse of alcoholic beverages" by persons under 18 years of age.

He said it was not advisable to restrict the consumption of alcohol in general, as it would adversely affect responsible drinkers and lawful businesses.

NA Vice Chairman Phung Quoc Hien said the bill should pay attention to trade agreements that Vietnam has signed. Vietnam might be questioned if it imposes a special consumption tax on liquor, if it contravenes the agreements signed, Hien said.

Some people even expressed concerns that the proposed restrictions could affect the number of visitors coming to Vietnam.

Nguyen Van Viet, chairman of the Vietnam Beer, Alcohol, and Beverage Association (VBA), said: "Beer and alcohol production plays an important role in the development of the economy and society."

Data collected by the Ministry of Health shows Vietnamese citizens consumed 305 million liters of liquor and 4.1 billion liters of beer in 2017, making it the biggest alcohol consumer in Southeast Asia and third biggest in Asia after Japan and China.

On beer alone, nearly $4 billion was spent last year.

The alcohol industry contributes about VND50 trillion ($2.17 billion) to the state budget a year and provides about 220,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Vietnam targets production of 4.1 billion liters of beer in 2020 and 5.5 billion in 2035, according to VBA.

The bad and the ugly

Contradicting the proclaimed economic benefits, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the social costs generated by alcohol consumption at 1.3–3.3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Based on this, Vietnam would lose at least VND65 trillion ($2.8 billion) each year, calculating the loss at the lowest rate of 1.3 percent, according to the Health Ministry.

Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien said: "We have to find a balance between economic benefits and damage to health and social welfare."

Legislator Pham Trong Nhan said that the economic damage that alcohol consumption inflicts on Vietnam is significant.

Although many people point to economic benefits and job creation, Nhan said it was hard to justify the mass production of beer and liquor.

The indirect impact of alcohol on the economy should also be taken into consideration, Nhan said, citing official data that alcohol was the direct causes of at least 30 diseases and injuries and the indirect cause of at least 200 types of illnesses.

He stressed that prompt measures should be taken now to take Vietnam out of its ‘leading position’ in alcohol consumption in the world.

In 2008, Vietnam ranked 8th in beer consumption in Asia. Eight years later, it had climbed to the 3rd position, behind Japan and China.

Health Minister Tien said that the total direct burden of six types of cancer caused by alcohol and beer consumption is nearly VND26 trillion ($1.12 billion), accounting for 0.25 percent of total GDP last year; and the cost to deal with consequences of traffic accidents involving driving under the influence (DUI) accounted for 1 percent of GDP last year, or about VND50 trillion ($2.17 billion). 

The high volume of alcohol consumption in Vietnam is a result of easy availability of alcohol, especially beer, which can be found everywhere from wet market to convenience stores, according to some legislators.

Legislator Le Thi Yen said Vietnam should not trade all the negative impacts that alcohol can cause for VND50 trillion, and that it should be noticed that it poses a challenge for sustainable social-economic development.

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