Let’s face it: when was the last time you saw anyone checking for IDs here?
But going out one night recently, I brought my ID anyway. I had just turned 20 and, as I have been studying in the US, was excited to have a holiday in a country where I was legal again. And so, as my friends breezed past the bouncers, I took out my wallet and practically pushed my ID into the bouncer’s hand. I knew it wasn’t necessary, and it was quickly confirmed by the bouncer’s quizzical look, as he took my card, barely glanced at it and handed it back with utter disinterest.
In the tiniest way, I was disappointed; “I am legal!” I thought. “Doesn’t this matter?”
Well, it depends on who you ask.
For the Thai government, it certainly does. Since the establishment of the Alcohol Control Act in 2008, reducing alcohol consumption has figured prominently on the government’s list of priorities. The Act introduced a number of regulations that we are now familiar (and possibly frustrated) with, including bans on direct advertising of alcohol on television, the stipulation of times for the purchasing of alcohol, and the raising of the minimum drinking age from 18 to 20-no, the staff at Citylife
didn’t know this either!
This past June, various pubs and entertainment venues in Chiang Mai bore the brunt of the policy’s enforcement. In one incident, the police investigated six pubs leading to the arrests of 26 underage drinkers, as well as hefty fines for the pubs in which they were caught.
In late May, Chiang Mai governor M.L. Panadda Diskul called for the closure of ten (unnamed) entertainment venues, and even paid a personal visit to pubs to ensure that regulations were being enforced. In his statements, Panadda echoed an old and oft-repeated message that pervades the existing legislation – that alcohol was a major cause of social and economic problems in society.
However, Chiang Mai’s night life scene seems unfazed – just a few days after the arrests, tourists, teens, and regulars were back at their haunts again. At one particularly crowded venue, I asked a bar owner if he was concerned about bars and pubs being closed down by the authorities. He merely shook his head and laughed. “It’s not going to happen,” he said.
And the teenagers themselves don’t seem to be particularly worried.
Age is just a Number
In Chiang Mai, drinking appears to be increasingly popular, especially among the youth. Interviews with a number of teenagers revealed that many begin drinking at around the age of 15, drinking as occasionally as once or twice every month to as frequently as three to four times a week.
The main draw to drink was to socialise and spend time with friends. “[Drinking] is certainly a social activity for me, as I never drink by myself,” said one 18 year-old named Kamina. “I only drink when I’m with my friends, and I do it mainly so that we can all just get really drunk and all go out.”
While many acknowledged that underage drinking was socially frowned upon, and illegal, like every generation of youth, this doesn’t seem like a significant deterrent. “Drinking is not accepted in Thai culture, especially if you’re underage,” said one 16 year-old girl, who chose to be identified as Tanya. “Thai people have big expectations on how young children are supposed to act, which are: study hard, do homework, get grades, and respect parents.”
Tangmo, 17, echoed similar concerns, but also noted that for her, perspectives were changing. “Alcohol consumption is known to go against the will of Buddhism, which is the most important aspect of Thailand. However, the new generation’s perspectives have ‘evolved’ and we realise that there are more important things than just following the rules of Buddhism, such as learning to ‘fit-in’ with society.”
Furthermore, if the only difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drinking was a question of just a few years, then that line of thinking wasn’t going to stop teens from underage drinking. “No teenager is going to wait until 20 or 21 for their first drink,” said Pim, 17.
Finally, as long as they knew how to take care of themselves and be responsible for their actions, some teens don’t consider drinking reprehensible, as the government would have them think. “Drinking is something normal just like having dinner with our parents on Fridays, instead we drink with friends on Saturdays,” said one 15 year-old.
Still, that’s not to say that the government doesn’t have its reasons for wanting to reduce alcohol consumption. Studies have shown that alcohol consumption in Thailand has steadily been on the rise, and that – no surprise – a high number of high-risk behaviours come along with it.
It’s important to note, however, that, in comparison to other countries, Thailand does not rank extremely high on the scale of overall alcohol consumption, especially when it comes to youth. In a well-cited study published in December 2009, titled ‘Prevalence and Patterns of Alcohol Consumption and Health-Risk Behaviours among High School Students in Thailand’, which surveys 50,033 students nationwide, results show that Thai students drank less than their western counterparts. The prevalence of alcohol consumption among Thai teens in the past year was 25.5% in boys and 14.5% in girls, whereas in Sweden, for instance, it was 48.1%.
But as Dr. Phunnapa Kittirattanapaiboon at Suan Prung Psychiatric hospital pointed out, the numbers require a bit of interpretation. “Statistics don’t really tell the whole story,” she said, “because the way in which Thai people drink is different.” Though Thais reportedly drank less often, “the smaller percentage that do drink, drink really heavily,” she said.
As a March 2010 study reports, drinkers in Thailand showed a tendency to drink infrequently, but heavily, with over 60% of drinkers drinking on a level that could be classified as at-risk drinking. Worryingly, this pattern was most prevalent in the youngest age group of underage drinking.
Compound this drinking pattern with the tendency of high-intensity drinkers to drive while intoxicated – and considering that traffic accidents are the fourth most common cause of deaths among Thai adolescents – and you could say that there is a legitimate concern on the government’s hands.
A Negative Approach
So far, the government has taken a notably aggressive stance towards drinking. With official websites offering such prescriptive warnings as stopdrinking.com and thaiantialcohol.com , the only message that the government seems to be advocating is abstinence – if you’re underage, you shouldn’t even be thinking about touching that bottle of Chang.
Yet this negative approach might be ignoring other important aspects of reducing alcohol consumption – such as education.
Dr. Paritat Silpakul, deputy director of Suan Prung Psychiatric Hospital, confirmed that from a health care perspective, increased alcohol consumption was a major concern. In the past five years, for instance, he has seen an increasing number of alcoholic patients younger than 30. Because alcoholism only develops after many years of continuous drinking, Paritat guesses that most of these patients must have started drinking around the age of 15-17.
But Paritat also questioned the effectiveness of taking such a negative approach in combatting excessive alcohol consumption. Education on responsible drinking, for example, is an important tool which seems to have been forgotten in the government overbearing anti-alcohol campaign. “I think we should provide a factual education [about alcohol consumption] – sometimes, with good intentions, we paint too dark of a colour for the problem. We care…but it won’t work in the long run. We should tell the truth.”
When I asked Dr. Paritat about what specifically made drinking in Thailand a worrying issue, he brought up an intriguing point: other than the simple fact that, like most people in the world, Thais like to celebrate, he noted that law enforcement – and the lack thereof – played a big role in allowing for pervasive underage drinking. “…This is the general condition in Thailand, with wearing helmets, safety belts, traffic rules, everything…we see that Thai people ignore and don’t pay respect to laws and regulations. That’s also happened to alcohol control as well.”
Perhaps then, it’s the loose and haphazard enforcement of rules and regulations that allow for, and perhaps even encourage, teenagers to drink so easily in the first place. While the case might be different in other cities in Thailand, especially Bangkok, loose law enforcement certainly seems to be the norm for most pubs in Chiang Mai. I talked to one bouncer at a club who said that when it came to letting people in, “The official age is 20, but we really don’t care.” And teens are certainly aware of this – most of my interviewees either were rarely carded, or knew methods for getting in. “In Thailand, it is very easy to enter bars but not as easy to get into clubs…but if you look like you’re of age and a foreigner, they’ll let you in regardless,” said Tanya. She added, in parentheses, “They know you have money.”
So, before the government and the Ministry of Health can bemoan the vices of alcohol and its corrosive effect on society, they may want to consider their own roles in easing the path for underage drinking. If the authorities seems to be fighting an uphill battle, part of the resistance is coming from their own ineffectiveness.
For now, the kids are drinking, and they’re okay with it. As one 17 year-old so aptly said: “As long as we don’t end up sleeping in a dumpster somewhere, I think we’re good.”