Seventeen-year-old Doung Sokchea has been drinking since midday. Now it’s after sunset, and he’s one of many teenagers gathered on an embankment overlooking the Mekong on Koh Pich. Most are on motorbikes, many have beers in hand.
In Phnom Penh, where it seems that beer is available on every corner – from bars to streetside vending machines – alcohol consumption isn’t restricted by age or social status. Sokchea says that he started drinking when he left school three years ago, and he’s not alone.
“People my age drink a lot of alcohol compared to young people before,” he says. “For my generation, it’s easier than for my parents’ generation. The culture isn’t strict like it was for them.”
For Sokchea, consuming beer and palm wine is now a daily ritual – and one to which he hasn’t given too much thought. “I just know that if I drink a lot of beer or wine, I will get sick, but I don’t know exactly about the consequences,” he says.
That’s likely because for teenagers drinking anything from beer to hard liquor in Phnom Penh, there aren’t any legal consequences. There is no drinking age in Cambodia, and a draft law on alcohol consumption is tied up in red tape.
It’s not just Cambodian teens taking part. For the children of expatriates, many of whom can’t legally drink before 18 in their home countries, easy access to alcohol is, as one teenage student puts it, “just part of the normal”.
The habits – and the lack of knowledge about them – raise concern at the Ministry of Education. Dr Young Kunthearith, deputy director of the department of school health, says there are plans to integrate alcohol awareness studies into the national curriculum by 2018.
“A lot of young people are drinking, from 13 or 14 years old,” Kunthearith says. He believes alcohol advertising has led to a rise in youth consumption. But beyond the school environment, it’s not something over which the ministry has any control.
Broader regulation is ostensibly in the works: the Law on Alcohol Products Control was submitted by the Ministry of Health to the Council of Ministers for approval in July 2015. But the ministry was unable to offer comment on its status, and government spokesperson Phay Siphan could not confirm the submission.
The draft law – which suggests the drinking age be set at 21 years old – was endorsed at a ministerial meeting over a year ago, says Dr Yel Daravuth, technical officer for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia. He says it’s been delayed by the power of the alcohol industry.
“The alcohol industry has a lot of strong lobbying with high-level policy-makers, which is why we believe the law is being delayed, despite public support,” he says.
Daravuth adds that without a law to regulate or inform people about the health impacts of alcohol, it is costing Cambodian society. “I don’t believe people understand how much alcohol has an effect on health,” he says. “[The accessibility] has made the drinking culture very aggressive. If they’re happy, they drink. If they’re sad, they drink.”
Katie*, 17, who attends an international school in the capital, doesn’t think a law would have much impact. “It might in the beginning make some little change, but it’s so easy to just say, ‘I forgot my ID’ or ‘I’m travelling,’” she says. “You find ways around it. It depends on the bars and the cops – if they’re prepared to bust up every single place.”
She says that most of her classmates started drinking when they were around 14 years old. While things occasionally get out of hand, she says most kids opt for a beer or two rather than bingeing – a contrast, perhaps, with the heavy drinking culture of many expatriates.
But Laurent Pons, the British general manager of backpacker den Top Banana, says the bar has recently had to install its own age restriction, set at 18. He has seen an uptick in the number of teenagers trying to get in over the last couple of years, and their “messy” behaviour has increased ID checks.
“You can find alcohol so easily in Cambodia, but I don’t want to be responsible if something happens,” he says. “It’s the same thing as back [in England]: it just makes sense not to serve minors.” But he adds that enforcing a legal drinking age of 21, as it is in the US, would be “business suicide”.
Leanna Payne has spent much of her 22 years in Phnom Penh. She, like Katie, graduated from an international school, and says that during her teenage years a routine of casual drinks – not bingeing – was a regular pastime.
But Payne says that as the venues have changed, so has the culture. She and her friends used to go to the dive bars on riverside, but now students are more likely to be seen dressed up with a private table at a club like Nova.
“You see people trying to emulate certain things now – like pop stars – and [whether casual drinking is safe or not] depends on your reason for drinking,” she says.
Katie and Payne say that it’s their upper-class Cambodian classmates who face social pressure to consume more, as a sign of wealth – but it’s done behind closed doors.
“When wealthy Cambodians go out, if they do get super drunk, they try to do it secretively and not in public,” Katie says. “If they make a scene, it reflects badly on their families, and if their families are connected to the government, it makes a big scandal,” she says.
Daravuth, of the WHO, is concerned that it’s the beginning of a culture of bingeing.
“I believe if the youth are having one or two drinks, they will probably be having more,” he says. “It affects their jobs, their future, their economic position: it is a loss of human resources. It leads to violence, crimes, fights, and drunk driving accidents.”
“The youth are the future, but if they are drinking alcohol regularly, it’s bad for the new generation.”
Detpoun Bun, who manages nightclub Zeus – popular among locals – agrees that while restrictions could benefit the community, he’s unsure whether any law would ever limit youth consumption.
“It would save a lot of accidents and all that crazy stuff,” he says. “But it’s Cambodia – who’s going to enforce it?”
* Name changed to protect identity.
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