Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sombre start to the new year


Sombre start to the new year

Despite the dazzle and glitter, the New Year holiday season this year was suffused with sadness. While heavy security precautions prevented any repeat of the mysterious explosions which ruined much of Bangkok's fun 12 months ago, this year the country was plunged into mourning on the first official day back at work.

The much-mourned death of His Majesty the King's beloved elder sister, Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana, led to an outpouring of grief and marked a sad start to a new year that many had already greeted with apprehension. So much so that the Mental Health Department late last year put out a warning of high stress levels among the general population, triggered by political foreboding and gloomy economic factors.

But, for many, tradition and bad habits prevailed. Although 10 days earlier, the Public Health Ministry had succeeded in getting a watered-down version of its Alcohol Control Bill voted into law by the outgoing National Legislative Assembly, the pending curbs failed to deter those intent on welcoming in the new year with good-natured partying. Nor should they have done.

Unfortunately, they were also ignored by those who had brushed off weeks of warnings because they thought nothing bad could happen to them, personally, and took the risk of mixing their drinking with driving. Some of these are now in jail cells or hospitals and many are dead, their lives extinguished in a heap of twisted metal along with those of their victims.

Fatalities during the festive season were down slightly over last year but still accounted for several hundred lives senselessly lost. The Interior Ministry blamed drunk driving for 42% of the accidents, while speeding and reckless driving were responsible for the rest. Motorcycles were easily the most disaster-prone vehicles, followed by pickups.

The irresponsibility demonstrated by these alcohol-fuelled road warriors will increase demands for controls on the country's alcoholic drinks market, currently valued at over 100 billion baht. These are likely to exceed the scope of the fledgling alcohol control law which prohibits all advertising of alcohol products in media such as print, billboards, radio and television. Somewhat confusingly, ''non-persuasive content'' advertising will be permitted, presumably referring to product placement or corporate prestige advertising. Whatever this new marketing concept turns out to be, the likelihood is that the issue of alcohol use will be thrust back in the spotlight again because of the stupidity of those who abuse it to excess.

The new law along with the ministerial curbs, bans and penalties currently being drafted demonstrate a backlash against a trend that has seen Thailand become fifth in the world for alcohol consumption and notorious for its carnage on the roads. Among certain zealous sectors of society, this backlash has long inspired a moral crusade. The ''No. 5'' ranking is certainly nothing to be proud of. We know that alcohol abuse is a major factor contributing to domestic violence and that the number of drinkers supposedly doubles every three years in all sex and age groups. Alcohol misuse is undoubtedly a major factor in crime and physical assaults.

Yet it is important that those who want alcohol banned, or sales severely curtailed, remember that anti-social and even suicidal behaviour stems from the actual abuse of liquor, and that this involves a small minority. Responsible members of society do not imperil themselves or others by having a relaxing alcoholic drink with like-minded friends in a stress-relieving social setting. Among such social drinkers are doctors who openly say that a glass of red wine is good for you.

We need some positive thinking after 15 joyless months of military rule. If governments, the bureaucrats who work for them, the killjoys and control freaks could live and let live and avoid kneejerk reactions which spoil the enjoyment of the majority because of the childish and irresponsible actions of a few, today's globalised world would become a more pleasant place in which to live. Unfortunately, negative thinking is an ingrained trait in our society and any change will be slow.

No comments: