Thailand's war on alcohol takes a celebrity turn

By David Allen - 26 Oct '15 09:27AM

Thailand's anti-alcohol forces have launched a "war on celebrities" after a series of selfies and photos appeared online, showing two dozen B-list local show business personalities drinking the country's most popular beer.

Officials at the Thai Health Ministry have accused the celebrities of illegal promotion of alcohol and encouraging others to drink. Actual legal charges are unlikely. But by calling in the celebrities for high-profile questioning, anti-drinking forces have made another point in a slowly evolving campaign to force prohibition on free-spirited Thailand.

Those involved, who do not include the country's top celebrity ranks, posted photos on Instagram showing themselves with bottles and pitchers of Chang Beer. "Chang" is Thai for elephant, and is by far the country's top-selling beer. It conducts extensive advertising overseas, where it is the official sponsor of the Everton soccer team, in the English Premier League.

In isolation, the campaign against the celebrities seems especially absurd. Thailand is known worldwide as a place for a free-spirited, even raunchy vacation. Thais themselves have earned a reputation as some of the most tolerant people on the planet.

But the celebrity-studded crackdown on selfies isn't taking place in isolation. It is in the hands of Saman Futrakul, who several years ago won promotion as head of Thailand's Alcohol Control Board, which is under the Health Ministry. Saman is a pious Buddhist with the stated aim of banning alcohol in Thailand, and he has taken many small steps to work towards that goal.

The main one is the Alcohol Control Act, pushed through by Saman in 2008. One of its clauses bans advertising of alcohol. It has been generally unenforced except in cases where Saman has personally stepped in, such as the current celebrity brouhaha.

When called in by Saman, whose office has enforcement powers, the celebrities all denied being paid for the photos. This actually is not on point, since under the law, all photos that "promote drinking of alcohol" are banned, whether paid advertising or not.

One of the minor celebrities, a cable-TV and nightclub video jockey known as VJ Woonsen, claimed that the beer company paid her, and announced she intended to repent by campaigning for national prohibition.

The cases are likely to fade away in the legal system, and prison time is not actually threatened. Saman's goal is to publicize the legal problems people can face by drinking and bragging.

He had an effect. As seen in the photos, even TV stations and newspapers reporting the story for Thai readers censored the labels on the Instagram posts, to avoid any trouble with Saman's anti-alcohol enforcement authorities.

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