A draft law regulating the purchase and consumption of alcohol in Cambodia will, if passed, set the country’s legal drinking age at 21 years old, according to officials involved with the legislation, which many see as a tool to fight excessive youth drinking and drunken driving.
Cambodia is one of only a handful of countries in the world that has no legal limit for drinking or buying beer, wine or spirits, according to the US-based International Center for Alcohol Policies, or ICAP, a nonprofit research group that works with the beverage industry and public health organisations.
Other countries lacking similar laws and included in ICAP’s data – last updated in August 2013 – were Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Comoros, a nation of islands off the west coast of Africa. Of the ASEAN countries listed in the rundown, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam all have laws on the books.
“The age we advocate for is 21 year[s] old for legal alcohol drinking,” Yel Daravuth, a national professional officer with the World Health Organization, said in an email.
Daravuth, who works in the areas of tobacco, substance abuse and mental health, added that the law is supported by the government's Council of Jurists; the UN's Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC; and the Ministry of Health, which is leading the charge.
“Now, we have a draft law but we have not yet issued it,” said Hok Khiev, director of the department of legislation at the ministry. Khiev declined to comment on when the law would make its way to the National Assembly, or what other measures would be in it. He also declined to talk about why the law was needed. “When the law is issued, I can say.”
But health and road-fatality statistics offer some clues.
While in most parts of the world, drinking levels have remained stable, they are on the rise in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, and Cambodia is no exception.
Cambodians aged 15 and older drank an average of 5.5 litres of pure alcohol per capita from 2008 to 2010, compared with the 4.6 litres they swigged from 2003 to 2005, according to a World Health Organization report released in May.
The consumption figures were lower than the global average of 6.2 litres, but higher when accounting for the fact that consumption among Cambodian men was several litres more than that attributed to women.
Advocates for legislation to make Cambodia’s streets and national roads safer for pedestrians and drivers also support the age limit. To legally drive a motorbike, there are age requirements depending on the engine’s size, and blood-alcohol content levels are set at a standard ceiling of 0.05g/dl for commercial and regular drivers, and young or novice drivers. But with no law prohibiting sales or consumption of alcohol, the existing rules are weakened.
“It’s also related to road safety, because drunk driving is one of the leading causes" of crashes, said Ear Chariya, an independent road-safety consultant. He noted that in 2013, 16 per cent of road deaths were caused by drunken driving.
Chariya, however, expressed doubts that the law would be able to pass. For one thing, tax revenues are gained from alcohol sales.
Still, he hoped it would.
“I believe there are a lot of kids enjoying alcohol. Kids use alcohol from the age of 10,” he said, citing a survey from the Ministry of Health.
Little information has been released about the coming changes, so it’s difficult to say how they will be received by the general public or alcohol sellers, who rarely ask for ID or for a customer’s age.
Representatives of two of the largest beer makers in the country – Khmer Brewery, which makes Cambodia beer, and Cambrew Ltd, which produces Angkor and other brands – could not be reached for comment yesterday.
A 46-year-old alcohol seller in Phnom Penh who declined to be named said yesterday that she hadn’t heard of the draft law, but that she welcomed it.
“Most of my beer buyers are in the ages between 17 and 18. Sometimes, they buy and drink by themselves; sometimes they buy for friends or families,” she said.
She added that having a law is a good idea, but getting drinkers to follow it is a problem in itself.
“I support the proposed law, but I think people do not practise it easily. The teens will still drink beer,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY