PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — On every TV station, in every magazine, and on the billboards plastering Cambodia's road, seemingly nothing is advertised as ubiquitously as alcohol.
According to the ads, these drinks taste delicious, improve sleep, and serve as a symbol as national pride. There are stronger inducements, too. Some breweries offer rewards. Get lucky and your beer can might win you a motorcycle, car, or cash. Or even just a free can of beer.
But the boisterousness advertisements and prizes hide the reality of alcohol in Cambodia, which boasts high rates of drunk driving accidents and alcohol-related illnesses. Public health officials say there is little doubt that advertising is linked to Cambodia's high rates of alcohol consumption.
But years of urging curbs of advertisement has yielded little progress, with a bill aimed at limiting advertising and controlling alcohol sales languishing for more than five years now. At stake, note campaigners, is millions of dollars for companies run by some of Cambodia's most powerful tycoons.
“If he was not drunk, he would not hit my daughter”
On the night of October 16, San Phally and three others were killed by a drunk driver.
The 20-year-old had left home just three days earlier to find work in Phnom Penh, according to her father Ly Koeung.
“I do not know what to compare to my child. When I think of her, my tears always fall. I regret it. It too fresh. She just said goodbye three days ago.”
Sitting in front of the house where his youngest daughter's funeral just ended, Koeung said he had no doubt that alcohol was the chief cause of the accident.
“If he was not drunk, he would not hit my daughter. My daughter was walking on the sidewalk,” he said, tears in his eyes. “He was driving drunk and lost consciousness, then he caused the danger to others. If he had not been drunk, he could not have caused harm.”
Nearly 13,700 people were injured in 2019 and more than 2,000 were killed in traffic accidents, according to the latest UNDP report issued in June 2021. As Cambodia sees an average of 5.4 deaths a day due to traffic accidents, the report lists alcohol use as one of the key factors associated with the loss of life in an accident.
In the past, most Cambodians drank alcohol only on special occasions, but in recent decades, drinking has become more habitual and part of daily social life. That shift is directly linked to the rise in alcohol advertising, according to Dr. Mom Kong, executive director of the Cambodian Movement for Health, who notes that alcohol companies spend millions of dollars on advertising to attract more sales.
“According to the research of the World Health Organization, as well as major institutions around the world, it is clear that the advertisements cause people to drink alcohol,” he said. “Every year the alcohol companies spend a lot of money on advertising. If it weren't for the strong influence of attracting consumption, those companies would not have spent so much money.”
He said the reward schemes, in which drinkers stand to win big-ticket prizes, is also an attractive strategy to make people drink more.
“[It works] not only for getting people to start drinking, but for those who drink alcohol to drink more than usual, in order to get the reward. For example, when he opens the beer can, he wins another can, so he drinks more. The more you drink, the more dangerous it is then.”
In addition to accidents, said Dr. Mom Kong, the high rate of alcohol consumption leads to a range of individual and societal problems.
“It makes people sick when they drink alcohol. Some people take a long time to get sick, some people drink just a little but they get sick and there are more than 200 diseases that caused by the use of alcohol,” said Mom Kong.
“Alcohol contributes greatly to poverty because when people drink, they buy alcohol. But the cost of buying alcohol compared to the cost of illness and other losses due to alcohol is still very low,” he explained. “Thus, alcohol not only causes losses due to the cost of medical treatment, the purchase of alcohol, it also causes a lot of social costs, such as the loss of human resources that we cannot calculate.”
According to Dr. Mom Kong, in order to curb alcohol consumption, the government must raise taxes on alcohol, ban alcohol advertising, restrict the use and purchase of alcohol, and restrict the time and place of sale of alcohol.
Such suggestions are hardly new.
In 2016, the Asia Foundation released a research report on the alcohol industry in Cambodia, noting the many impacts on society. Alcohol is responsible for “more than 60 major types of illness, including cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS,” the report noted, as well as deaths and injuries due to the large number of alcohol-related traffic accidents.
The report showed that Cambodian men drink an average of 9.7 liters of pure alcohol each year - far above the global average of 6.2 liters. The high rate of alcohol use was due to how cheap liquor is in Cambodia, the lack of restrictions on advertising, and the lack of laws curbing use, according to the report.
Few regulations and political interests
Five years later, there are still very few regulations governing alcohol in the country. Though there are laws against drunk driving, with steep fines for those whose breath alcohol content is over the legal limit of 0.40 mg/l, enforcement is scarce. Similarly, bans on broadcasting alcohol ads between the primetime hours of 6pm -8pm, have had little impact on lowering consumption.
In 2015, Ministry of Health drafted a law on alcohol control. The law set a drinking age of 21, prohibited late night alcohol sales, and limited advertising. Campaigners at the time commended the government for its thoroughness. But the law has never moved forward.
Dr. Ly Sovann, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, insisted the law was still in consideration, but said he could not comment on it, referring questions to Chhea Chhordaphea, director of the National Center for Health Promotion. Dr. Chhordaphea could not be reached for comment.
But Dr. Ly Sovann did say the ministry educates Cambodians frequently about the dangers of alcohol. And he said the bigger danger came not from overuse, but from drinking unregulated liquor. He pointed to rice wine, which is often home brewed and sometimes is adulterated with methanol - leading to deaths and serious illness.
“In the past, the ministry has always been educating people about the level of alcohol. That would be fine if the wines are recognized by the ministry, but we worry about the local producer. Sometime they cause alcohol poisoning, there are deaths and so on,” said Dr. Ly Sovann. “So, the local authorities, civil society and all stakeholders should participate in educating and banning.”
Advocates say the lack of progress on the draft law is due to powerful political interests behind Cambodia's top liquor companies.
The Asia Foundation report found that three companies account for 80 per cent of alcohol produced and consumed in Cambodia.
“The industry is driven by the interests of large producers who are embedded within the political architecture of the Cambodian government and associated financial profits,” noted the report, which pointed that the biggest companies have “shareholding and influential relationships at the Ministerial level and with senior government officials.”
“In practice this means large producers are involved in various businesses with government officials, including Ministers and family members of high-ranking officials. Through these relationship large producers can influence new laws and regulations.”
Kingdom Brewery and Hanuman Beverages didn't respond to emailed requests for comments, while Im Sothearith, head of communications at Khmer Beverage, declined to be interviewed.
In addition to the massive amount of alcohol advertising, government officials are often seen inaugurating breweries, urging them to increase exports and encouraging people to drink alcohol.
On several occasions, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself has given speeches at brewery inaugurations urging Cambodians to drink up - noting that by drinking the taxed beer, they're helping the nation.
“Don't forget, [if you] drink one bottle or one can of beer, how much will the state get?” he said at the May 15, 2012 inauguration of the Khmer Brewery factory.
Responding to questions related to the issues surrounding alcohol advertisement, Pen Sovicheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce, said even without a dedicated law, the government had consumer rules in place to ensure advertising followed certain moral and ethical guidelines.
“We listen to the information from the consumer watchdog. If there is information about any issues related to consumer rights violations, we accept that request and address it. We also follow the spots on TV and radio and also the spots on tuk-tuks to collect the information and start taking action.”
He added that the relevant ministries are always concerned about the effects of alcohol consumption, but he said that drafting laws related to alcohol control takes time to study and understand the social and economic impact.
“Due to some economic factors, we need to weigh in on the consequences and benefits carefully. It is not immediately possible to stop promoting alcohol, to stop selling it in public, etc, as we want. The Ministry of Health has a balance, the Ministry of Commerce is also involved in the drafting committee. But we have to be very careful.”