Wall Street Journal (Thailand) – Global Liquor Makers Fight Graphic Labels in Thailand

  • Post category:World News

Alcohol companies world-wide are lining up to fight a Thai plan to require graphic warning labels about alcohol on the country’s domestic and imported beer, wine and liquor bottles.

The proposed labels-which would cover 30% of the bottles’ surface area-include unusually explicit warnings about risks associated with alcohol use. One picture shows a shirtless man grasping a woman by the hair and raising his fist to hit her, accompanied by the words, “Alcohol consumption could harm yourself, children and family.”

The labels “are the most extreme we’ve ever seen,” says Brett Bivans, vice president of the International Center for Alcohol Policies, a Washington-based not-for-profit group funded by alcohol companies.

If the plan is adopted, such companies as Diageo PLC and Pernod Ricard SA would have to include the labels on all their brands sold in Thailand, including Absolut vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky and Guinness beer.

But predicting when-or if-adoption will happen is difficult. The Thai political system is notoriously tough to handicap, especially since unrelated antigovernment protests rocked the capital earlier this year and distracted top officials from other policy priorities.

Under Thai law, the new labels are subject to approval by two committees that oversee alcohol programs in Thailand. One committee has already given the green light. The second, chaired by a representative of Thailand’s prime minister, is reviewing the plan.

In the meantime, liquor companies worry that Thailand is about to set a dangerous precedent that other larger countries could follow. With only 65 million people, the Southeast Asian nation will never be one of the world’s biggest alcohol importers. But in 2005, it was among the first to slap graphic warning labels on cigarette packaging, such as pictures of diseased lungs. Since then, the U.K., Malaysia and other countries have followed suit.

Liquor companies also don’t like one of the main messages behind the Thai proposal: that even moderate alcohol consumption is bad. In a June report, Thailand’s Center for Alcohol Studies argued “there is no ‘safe drinking,’ ” only low-risk and high-risk consumption.

The stakes are high enough that the U.S. government agreed to pay for a group of Thai officials to travel to Washington to meet with U.S. alcohol experts to learn about alternatives to graphic warning labels, people familiar with the plan say.

But Thai health authorities argue that they need to take an aggressive approach toward alcohol in a country where consumption has continued to climb despite steps to curb its use, including limits on the hours when alcohol can be sold and tougher enforcement of drunk-driving rules.

About 41% of Thais drink regularly, according to a recent government survey, up from 37% in 1996. And Thai officials say that economic and other losses from alcohol-related diseases are roughly twice as great as global norms.

“Whatever measures the liquor industry supports are ineffective,” says Samarn Futrakul, director of Thailand’s Alcohol Control Committee Office at the Ministry of Public Health and a prime mover behind the plan. “Whatever they oppose turns out to be effective.”

The warning labels have been in development for a long time, but they first became a big issue in January, when Thailand alerted foreign governments about them in a filing to the World Trade Organization, which requires notifications of new measures that could affect trade.

Liquor companies urged their respective governments to convey disapproval, and many did. At a WTO committee meeting in March, officials from the U.S., the European Union, Argentina, Australia and several other countries raised concerns, including fears that the labels would suggest moderate drinking is dangerous. They also argued that the labels would create unnecessary obstacles to trade because foreign companies would be required to make different packaging for Thailand.

The countries raised the issues again at a WTO meeting in June without a resolution, according to a person who was present.

“It’s well known that the Thais have taken quite a strong stance on the alcohol issue in totality, and this is just one measure,” says Jamie Fortescue, director general of CEPS, which represents European spirits makers. He says his group prefers educating the public about alcohol risks via a website about responsible drinking.

Health advocates and industry leaders have long argued about the effectiveness of warning labels on consumer products. Critics maintain that graphic labels lose their sting once consumers grow accustomed to them.

But some studies involving cigarettes have found that larger and more-graphic warnings can heighten awareness of potential dangers. Alcohol producers are “way behind” the tobacco industry when it comes to raising awareness about health risks, says Ruth Ruiz, a policy and information officer for Eurocare, a lobbying group working against alcohol-related problems in Europe. She says her group supports the Thai proposals.

A survey last year about public views on labeling in Australia found widespread support for some kind of health-advisory labels on alcohol. But it found “mixed” support for several sample images, including one of a sick woman with text indicating a link between alcohol and breast cancer. Although some respondents said they thought labels would be more effective if, like cigarette warnings, they were more striking, others said the labels might be more useful if they were linked to wider ad campaigns conveying more information.

In Thailand, Mr. Samarn says, surveys suggest visual illustrations of drinking risks are more influential with consumers than text warnings and they enjoy broad support. He also says cigarette use declined after Thailand began using graphic images on tobacco products, though other factors, including higher taxes for cigarettes, could account for much of the decline.


Source: Wall Street Journal (Thailand), 17/09/2010
Journalists: Patrick Barta and Christina Passariello