Road Death and Alcohol

A family of four riding a motorcycle during Songkran festival. Sometimes you see a baby on the handlebars. On the right is a Thai sign that says don’t drink and drive.

It was on the Thai news last night that a new campaign to cut the Songkran drunk driving death toll has begun. The aim is to cut road deaths by 30% to 456 people, compared with last year’s figure of 654. I was actually impressed with their efforts last year. Normally everyone knows that most policemen take a holiday during Songkran so the roads are a free for all. But last year the police were more in evidence with checkpoints everywhere.

Here is a quote from the newspaper last year: “The Public Health Ministry reports that 80 per cent of people injured or killed in road accidents [during Songkran] were riding motorcycles or were pedestrians hit by motorcycles. Among the injured motorcyclists, only 10 per cent were wearing helmets and almost 70 per cent were under the influence of alcohol.”

It is true that Thailand has a drinking problem. According to the World Health Organization, Thailand currently ranks fifth in the world in alcohol consumption. In 2003 Thais consumed 7.9 million litres of pure alcohol with high-proof whiskey being the favoured drink, followed by beer and the consumption of wine less than 1 percent of the total.

There was an interesting column in the Bangkok Post the other day by David Swartzentruber which goes partly towards explaining this problem:

“[Thailand has] some of the world’s cheapest and lowest-quality whiskey, that is lapped up by Thai people at 155 baht per bottle and unquestionably often addicts them. This low cost is attributable to Thailand’s method of taxing alcoholic beverages, which is truly unique in the world. It is called the “ad valorem” system, which taxes on the basis of the cost of production. The world standard for taxing alcoholic beverages is the amount of alcohol they contain. Whiskey, which usually contains 35 to 40 percent alcohol, is taxed the highest rate followed by table wine (7-14 percent) and beer (4-6 percent). That’s an international standard even in countries less-developed than Thailand.”

David Swartzentruber remarks that a bottle of Thai whiskey going for 155 baht would probably be sold for at least 455 baht under a “proper” tax system. However, I cannot see that happening any time soon. But, if Thailand is serious about solving its drink driving problem then it will have to consider some drastic changes. Anyway, it is not as if Thai society approves of alcohol. Recently, hundreds of monks protested against the proposed listing of the Thai Beverage company at the stock exchange. They claimed that alcohol consumption is “a grave threat to the health, social harmony and time-honored ethics of Thai culture.” It looks like for now that they might have won the first battle. But they are far from winning the war.

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