PHNOM PENH — On one of Phnom Penh’s many rooftop bars that overlook the Mekong and Tonle rivers, Tann Somethea and her friends were enjoying themselves on a recent evening with a few rounds of drinks, as they do several times per week.
“We meet here to chat and have a drink for a stress-free evening,” the 21-year-old university student said, adding the drinks helped her to wind down and socialize.
When asked, Tann Somethea said she was not overly concerned by her alcohol consumption. She said she first tried a sip of whiskey at a family party at the age of 14.
“Cambodians like to use alcohol to create good mood,” she said, adding that her parents rarely inquired about her drinking behavior.
An 18-year-old university student from Battambang town, Heng Sakada, told VOA Khmer that he was introduced to liquor at a wedding two years ago and he has since been drinking frequently with his friends “because when we get a little drunk we can have more fun.”
Tann Somethea and Heng Sakada’s carefree attitude and frequent drinking is commonplace among youths in Cambodia, where heavily advertised and affordable beer and liquor makes it easy and tempting for many young people to start drinking.
Beer and liquor sales in Cambodia have been rising in the past decade as average incomes have increased, amid strong economic growth. Government regulations limiting alcohol sales or advertising are largely absent, as are programs that raise awareness of the health risks of alcohol use.
Civil society organizations have urged the government to introduce a national law on alcohol to improve public health and safety, but they said it has been held up for years by powerful business interests.
“[A] big issue is that the alcohol industry is trying to prevent this law from being passed,” said Yong Kim Eng, president of People Center for Development and Peace.
“Just like the alcohol industry around the world, it makes sense for them to hinder the passing of such law.”
His NGO advocates for human rights, democracy and youth interests and was involved in drafting the proposed law, which has been in limbo since 2015.
Without regulations, Cambodians’ fondness of having a good time - marked by expressions such as “If you do not drink to get drunk, then why drink?’’ - has often tipped over into health and safety problems, research shows.
“[I]n Cambodia there is little regulation of the alcohol industry including the advertising of alcohol products and very few, if any, measures in place to protect consumers,” according to a 2016 Asia Foundation report on the Cambodian alcohol industry.
“There is no minimum drinking age, no limitations on the sale or advertising of alcohol and Cambodia has some of the lowest taxes on alcohol products in the region… Although there is a blood alcohol limit for driving, enforcement is inadequate.”
The report warned that current high levels of alcohol consumption, especially among Cambodian men, can cause a range negative health effects and addiction.
It also linked alcohol consumption to high levels of violence against women, as well as drunk-driving traffic accidents with unintentional deaths and injuries, which stood at 2,500 alcohol-related traffic accidents in the first half of 2015 alone.
Risks to Youths
A 2015 World Health Organization report warned of a range of impacts for youths, noting that, “[I]ntoxication puts the young person at risk of physical, sexual and emotional harm and puts the community at risk as a result of disinhibited behavior.”
It added that, “Early onset of alcohol consumption is a predictor of alcohol problems in adulthood.”
Alcohol advertising is an important factor influencing youth’s behavior, WHO said, while peer pressure, stress and social problems can also drive consumption.
Sophoan, a 25-year-old construction worker in Phnom Penh, said he often drinks more than one liter of traditional medicinal alcohol, called Sra Tnam, per day to relax after his heavy work.
He recalled how he once crashed his motorbike while inebriated and sustained bruises on his arms and legs. Yet he continues to drink and drive, he said.
“I feel anxious without alcohol,” Sophoan said. “It has become a normal part of my life already. Also, when we gather after work, I have fun drinking alcohol together with other workers.”
Roath Visal, a 24-year-old student from Siem Reap province who is working toward a bachelor in medicine, said he has been drinking since he was 18. He said he often imbibes about seven cans of beer per night with friends.
Last year, however, he and his friends became involved in a brawl with other youths while drinking. He sustained minor injuries to his arms. Looking back, he realized his alcohol intake made him reckless, he said, noting he now drinks less frequently.
“I want to tell the youths that if you drink, know your limit,” Roath Visal said. “Stop when you know you can't continue anymore because you will do crazy things.”
‘To Ban Underage Drinking, We Need Laws’
The Asia Foundation recommended that Cambodia introduce restrictions on alcohol advertising across various media, such as television channels, radio and points of sale, and greatly increase public health warnings about alcohol use across these media and at venues where alcohol is sold.
Last year, several NGOs and youth groups urged the government to adopt a national law on alcohol regulations that would restrict advertising.
“To effectively ban underage drinking, we need laws and [then] implement them,” said Mom Kong, executive director of the Cambodian Movement for Health, one of the public-interest groups involved. “For example, introducing a ban on alcohol advertising.”
“As we can see, advertising plays a role in encouraging young people to drink alcohol,” he told VOA Khmer. “The actors and prizes [given away by companies] in the ads are things that youths like and want.”
He added that alcohol prices should rise to limit youths’ access.
Alcohol Law Ready ‘in a Few Years’
VOA Khmer obtained the draft law on alcohol, which has been circulating between the Ministry of Health and the Council of Ministers since 2015.
It includes a drinking age of 21 and fines for retailers who violate the provision. The law, if adopted, would prohibit alcohol sales from midnight to 6 a.m. and limit advertising, though details about potential advertising rules changes are absent. Any new advertising guidelines should take into account public health concerns and the rights of businesses to pursue profits, advocates for citizens have said.
When contacted by VOA, officials and lawmakers did not specify why it was taking years for Cambodia to develop and adopt a law that is common throughout the region.
Health Minister Mam Bunheng said the law would be introduced “in the next few years.”
“We need to further deliberate with all of our stakeholders… we will work on the draft again,” Mam Bunheng told VOA Khmer.
Stakeholders include the ministry, lawmakers, WHO and NGOs.
Lork Kheng, a Cambodian People Party (CPP) lawmaker, who is on a parliamentary commission involved in the process, was not able to offer a timetable for completing the process.
“A draft law is never absolutely accurate, so we need to consult with our stakeholders,” she said.
A Growing Industry With Influence
According to the Asia Foundation, the Cambodian alcohol industry is dominated by large beer brewers and large importers of beer, wine and spirits. There are also small producers.
Major beer producers are Malaysian company Cambrew Brewery (50 percent owned by Carlsberg), Cambodia Brewery (owned by Heineken), Khmer Brewery (owned by Chip Mong Group) and Kingdom Brewery (owned by Leopard Cambodia Fund).
The companies’ revenues are expanding as a result of a jump in consumption in recent years. The Asia Foundation estimates that beer imports alone rose sharply from a few million to 40 million liters between 2011 and 2015.
The report said it had “anecdotal evidence” that the companies have significant influence with the government and especially the ruling party through direct connections, and because the industry generates large import tax revenues for the government at around $30-40 million annually.
“The largest producers of beer and importers of alcohol products have strong affiliations with the dominant political party… through shareholding and relationships at the ministerial level and with senior government officials,” the report said.
“Large producers can influence new laws and regulations. In practice this means that large producers and government officials, including ministers and family members of high ranking officials, are involved in various businesses together.”
Representatives of Khmer Brewery, Cambodia Brewery and Cambrew declined to comment or did not reply when contacted by VOA Khmer. MP Lork Kheng sidestepped a question on private sector influence on the alcohol regulations.
Meanwhile, expanding advertising by the industry has become a major source of income for the media, in particular television channels, the Asia Foundation said. It estimated about half of the top ten TV channels’ advertising revenue comes from alcohol ads and is worth some $50 million annually.
The government has made only a token effort to restrain the large-scale advertisement of alcohol on Cambodian television, the report said, noting a 2015 ban by Ministry of Information on advertisements for alcohol during the 6 pm to 8 pm prime-time hours was not enforced and effectively ignored by the industry.
Tann Somethea, the 21-year-old student, said she thought the ubiquitous advertisements in the media and on signage and billboards around the capital had not caused her to start drinking more frequently.
“Advertisement doesn’t affect me, but I think that too much commercial advertisement affects other young Cambodians,” she said. “Sooner or later, I will drink anyway.”