Following the deaths of 18 people in Kratie province over the past week, the provincial government has implemented an emergency ban on the production of rice wine. The ban comes after proposals by the Health Ministry earlier this year to curb alcohol use in Cambodia, which were met with broad bipartisan support.
Unfortunately, these knee-jerk responses do nothing to address alcohol consumption and often have even worse unintended consequences.
The assumption that banning the production or consumption of anything that people demand is a common fallacy by policymakers. Tightening regulations does not make people want something less, it simply raises the price, the stakes, and the danger in providing and obtaining that product.
Calls for alcohol regulations often arise in response to alcohol-related tragedies, such as that which has struck people in Kratie, or the release of reports by public health agencies exposing the dangers of alcohol consumption.
The laws proposed earlier this year by the Health Ministry came in the wake of a push poll of Cambodians, in which 96 percent of respondents said that alcohol was a root cause of problems in their community. However, the survey, carried out by NGOs Friends International and M’Lop Tapang in 2013, failed to ask whether people wanted strict laws enacted.
The proposed law would be among the most strict in the developing world, prohibiting drinking alcohol in public places such as parks and on the street. The law would prohibit the sale of alcohol between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. with the exception of venues holding special permits. These laws would be enforced through heavy fines on the alcohol industry rather than individual Cambodians, targeting alcohol vendors, wholesalers and producers.
Rice wine, on the other hand, has long been a product of the informal market, usually consumed by those living in rural areas without the means to purchase popular alcohol brands. The cost of rice wine remains low because the regulatory costs found on brand name drinks do not apply, and yet millions of Cambodians safely drink the beverage every year without issue.
Attempts by the government to manipulate a market which is already completely out of the state’s control is an act of futility.
If the provincial government comes down heavy-handed in the enforcement of the ban on rice wine, the only result will be fines given out to poor producers struggling to make money and the emergence of a dangerous black market lacking even community oversight.
The bans and regulations will force up the prices of rice wine and regulated alcoholic brands, which will hurt poor Cambodians and their families who will spend more money on alcohol, and force some consumers toward alternative, cheaper and more dangerous intoxicants.
The main assumption behind the bans and regulations is that they will decrease demand for the products. This assumption has proven fallacious in almost all developed and developing countries that have imposed restrictions and taxes on alcohol, and has caused additional problems that were unforeseen by policymakers.
Most importantly, regulations of any kind increase opportunities for corruption by public officials. Cambodia already faces widespread corruption, where public officials will selectively enforce laws or bans based on whether they can extract bribes from offenders.
At the end of the day, there are adults who want to consume alcohol. It is up to the individual to take responsibility for the risks that come with drinking; it is not the role of government to play nanny. Tragedies like the one that happened in Kratie unfortunately do occur, but curtailing alcohol supply will only cause more problems.
Gabrielle Ward is research director at the Professional Research Institute for Management and Economics (PRIME). Soumy Phan is a research associate at PRIME.