By John Power
Korea’s regulation of alcohol is decidedly laissez-faire by international standards. Unlike in much of North America and Europe, alcohol is sold at convenience stores 24/7, bars and nightclubs close at their digression and drinking is permitted in public places.
The population is free to drink more or less whenever and wherever it pleases, and drink it does: In 2005, the last year for which the World Health Organization provides figures, South Koreans’ alcohol consumption was more than twice the global average. That year, the population consumed the equivalent of 14.8 liters of pure alcohol for every man and woman in the country over 15. Recent moves by government authorities, however, suggest a tighter regulatory regime is on its way.
On July 5, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced it would ban the consumption of alcohol in public parks from next year in an effort to curb drink-related crime. Explaining the decision, Park Sung-ho, a member of Seoul Metropolitan Council, told media that 42 percent of misdemeanors last year involved alcohol. The Seoul authorities’ move is in line with a broader national trend: Last month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced it was pushing to prohibit drinking in school areas, youth centers and hospitals and ban alcohol advertising on buses.
Cost to society
The huge social, health and economic costs that alcohol imposes on society necessitate greater controls, said Lee Hae-kook, a director at the government-affiliated National Alcohol Project Supporting Committee and professor at the department of psychiatry at Catholic University of Korea.
“The socio-economic burden of alcohol (in 2005) reached 20 trillion ($17.4 billion), which is 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. Further, the cost for treating alcohol-related disease reached 6 trillion won (in 2009), double that of 2005,” said Lee.
Moreover, in some areas, alcohol-related harm is on the rise, said Lee.
“The incidence of DUI-related accidents has increased fourfold in the past 20 years. And the rate of high-risk drinking increased from 14.9 percent (in 2005) to 17.6 percent (in 2010), which is the highest among OECD countries. Further, alcohol-related deaths increased from 40 per 100,000 people (in 1997) to 49.6 per 100,000 (in 2000), which is higher than other OECD countries.”
The overall trend of alcohol abuse in recent years has been mixed. While the prevalence of high-risk drinking has risen, from 14.9 percent of the population in 2005 to 17.2 in 2010, the rate of alcohol use disorder has declined, from 6.8 percent in 2001 to 4.3 in 2011.
Lee said that a particular characteristic of the Korean situation was the high prevalence of AUD among middle-aged men.
“Usually, the rate of AUD decreases with age. However, this age gradient is not observed in the Korean male. That is, the rate of alcohol disorder among those in their 40s and 50s is almost the same as those in their 20s. This phenomenon is due to the permissive culture toward the drinking problem and drinking party culture in the workplace.
“That is, the middle-aged man who has experienced a serious drinking problem can maintain his work and social relationships. In addiction, traditionally, the rate of AUD among women was very low in Korea. But, the rate of AUD among females is rapidly increasing while that of males remains stable.”
The Health Ministry told The Korea Herald it agreed with the need to “increase legal restrictions to prevent alcohol-related harm,” but that details needed “further discussion.”
More specifically, it said greater regulation of alcohol advertising was needed to prevent exposure to adolescents. Regarding 24/7 selling, the ministry said only that more restrictive licensing hours needed “further consideration from multilateral perspectives.”
As part of its ongoing measures, the ministry said it holds temperance campaigns, has restricted advertising and has designated hospitals for treating alcohol-related conditions.
But in a relatively unregulated environment, just what is the responsibility of the drinks industry?
The Korea Alcohol & Liquor Industry Association declined to comment on legal measures or its responsibility for alcohol-related harm. Oriental Brewery also refused to comment. The corporate relations head at a major drinks company in Korea, however, insisted the industry was making real efforts to tackle alcohol abuse, including spending some 5 billion won each year on the promotion of responsible drinking.
“(The) industry is making every effort to promote responsible drinking in Korea which doesn’t get exposed as much as it should in our view,” said the industry member who requested anonymity for himself and his company.
“In 2013, May, there is a world health assembly held by the WHO, where they will announce, in our view, the global alcohol strategy. We don’t know what that’s going to be, but right now what they are doing is, through their regional committees, Asia-Pacific, Europe, they are collecting industry effort or activities and doing an evaluation until then. And then they’ll come out with a basic strategy as to whether they need to strengthen (measures), or they need to deliver as it is, or they need to weaken (measures), they’ll decide.”
He rejected the argument that the industry had a vested interest in ensuring excessive alcohol consumption, adding that it supported measures such as the proposed ban on drinking in parks.
“If people adopt sensible drinking, I think our job is done. Think about it: excessive drinking is really harmful to human beings; if they really enjoy the drinking (responsibly), they’ll enjoy the drinking for a longer time. I am not sure if that is an advantage for the company or not, in our view.”
But even if the industry claims to be onboard with more laws regulating drinking, not everyone appreciates the curtailment of freedom in the name of public health and safety.
Kim Chung-ho, a professor at the Graduate School of Economics at Yonsei University, sees the latest raft of laws as another example of government encroachment on personal freedom.
“Violence in the street after drinking, violence in the police dispatch area, those kinds of behaviors should be prohibited. It has been prohibited by the law but it was not enforced. So the law should be enforced. But that’s it. (Banning) drinking in the park? I don’t think it is necessary. Drinking in the park and having barbecues, it is one of the greatest pleasures of Korea, doing the outdoor activities,” said Kim, adding that he believed the new law would be widely ignored.
Kim, who is a former head of the Center for Free Enterprise, poured further skepticism on the idea of restricting the country’s 24-hour nightlife culture, arguing instead that education, rather than more punitive laws, is the real solution to excessive drinking.
“Permission to drink 24 hours makes Korea more lively. The law used to prohibit drinking at 12, but that law failed. Koreans already have failed experience related to banning alcohol after dark,” said Kim.
“It is very hard to change the behavior but it is very easy to make laws so the politicians choose the easier way … Almost all the intellectuals have such need to regulate and monitor the behavior of ordinary citizens. I think it is not good.”
On the contrary, according to Lee of the National Alcohol Project Supporting Committee, the government is not only entitled to protect the public from the negatives effects of alcohol ― it is obligated to do so.
“Alcohol is both a good which can be consumed legally and a hazardous substance which has been designated a carcinogen by WHO. Therefore, the government has an obligation to protect citizens from alcohol-related harm. Further, the people have right to enjoy drinking, but no one who drinks has any right to threaten the safety of the public through drinking-related violence.”