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Vietnam's tough new drink-driving law taking cheer out of beer sales

Sales fall 25% in country that saw 284% surge in consumption from 2004-18


VIETNAM'S new get-tough-on-drink-driving law is taking the fizz out of one of the world's fastest-growing beer markets.

Beer sales in the country have dropped by at least 25 per cent since strict penalties on inebriated drivers took effect on Jan 1, while the police have issued more than 6,200 fines, according to local media.

Beer companies, which say the punishments are too harsh, have cut prices to shore up demand ahead of the boozy Tet Lunar New Year holiday.

Vietnam's crackdown, a response to several high-profile accidents last year, has come as a surprise to many in the nation of hearty drinkers with a history of flouting alcohol restrictions (a law banning civil servants from drinking during work hours is widely ignored). The country's beer consumption has nearly quadrupled since 2004, attracting global brewers from Heineken to Anheuser-Busch InBev looking for growth.

Health officials say Vietnam's soaring alcohol consumption is causing public health problems. An estimated 79,000 deaths a year are tied to alcohol, according to the World Health Organization.

More than 80 per cent of the nation's drinkers are men and abuse of alcohol is leading to increasing societal harms, including vehicle accidents, domestic violence and social disorder, said Le Thi Thu, a programme manager with the Hanoibased HealthBridge Foundation of Canada.

Negative effects of alcohol abuse are equal to 1.3 per cent to 3.3 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to the WHO.

The Vietnam Beer Alcohol Beverage Association, which represents domestic and international brewers, supports tougher laws to encourage responsible drinking but thinks the new fines are too steep, said Luong Xuan Dung, the group's general secretary. Drivers, for instance, could be hit with an 8 million dong (S$463) penalty for having only a trace of alcohol, he said.

Vietnam's growing middle class and youthful population helped drive a 284 per cent surge in beer consumption between 2004 and 2018, according to Euromonitor International. That's a reason behind Thai Beverage's acquisition of a US$4.8 billion stake in Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corp about two years ago.

Vietnam, the third-biggest swiller of beer in Asia Pacific in total volume, saw per capita household consumption rise 30 per cent between 2013 and 2018 to 43 litres, Euromonitor International said. The US, by contrast, had a 4 per cent drop. BLOOMBERG