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[VOICE] Should the law be tougher on alcohol?

With risky drinking on the rise ...
Should the law be tougher on alcohol?

Korea’s regulation of alcohol is decidedly laissez faire by international standards. Unlike in much of North America and Europe, alcohol is sold at convenience stores 24/7, bars and nightclubs close at their digression and drinking is permitted in public places.

The population is free to drink more or less whenever and wherever it pleases, and drink it does: In 2005, the last year for which the World Health Organization provides figures, South Koreans’ alcohol consumption was more than twice the global average. That year, the population consumed the equivalent of 14.8 liters of pure alcohol for every man and woman in the country over 15. Recent moves by government authorities, however, suggest a tighter regulatory regime is on its way. 

On July 5, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced it would ban the consumption of alcohol in public parks from next year in an effort to curb drink-related crime. Explaining the decision, Park Sung-ho, a member of Seoul Metropolitan Council, told media that 42 percent of misdemeanors last year involved alcohol. The Seoul authorities’ move is in line with a broader national trend: Last month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced it was pushing to prohibit drinking in school areas, youth centers and hospitals and ban alcohol advertising on buses.

Cost to society

The huge social, health and economic costs that alcohol imposes on society necessitate greater controls, said Lee Hae-kook, a director at the government-affiliated National Alcohol Project Supporting Committee and professor at the department of psychiatry at Catholic University of Korea.

“The socio-economic burden of alcohol (in 2005) reached 20 trillion ($17.4 billion), which is 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. Further, the cost for treating alcohol-related disease reached 6 trillion won (in 2009), double that of 2005,” said Lee.

Moreover, in some areas, alcohol-related harm is on the rise, said Lee.

“The incidence of DUI-related accidents has increased fourfold in the past 20 years. And the rate of high-risk drinking increased from 14.9 percent (in 2005) to 17.6 percent (in 2010), which is the highest among OECD countries. Further, alcohol-related deaths increased from 40 per 100,000 people (in 1997) to 49.6 per 100,000 (in 2000), which is higher than other OECD countries.”

The overall trend of alcohol abuse in recent years has been mixed. While the prevalence of high-risk drinking has risen, from 14.9 percent of the population in 2005 to 17.2 in 2010, the rate of alcohol use disorder has declined, from 6.8 percent in 2001 to 4.3 in 2011.

Lee said that a particular characteristic of the Korean situation was the high prevalence of AUD among middle-aged men.

“Usually, the rate of AUD decreases with age. However, this age gradient is not observed in the Korean male. That is, the rate of alcohol disorder among those in their 40s and 50s is almost the same as those in their 20s. This phenomenon is due to the permissive culture toward the drinking problem and drinking party culture in the workplace.

“That is, the middle-aged man who has experienced a serious drinking problem can maintain his work and social relationships. In addiction, traditionally, the rate of AUD among women was very low in Korea. But, the rate of AUD among females is rapidly increasing while that of males remains stable.”

The Health Ministry told The Korea Herald it agreed with the need to “increase legal restrictions to prevent alcohol-related harm,” but that details needed “further discussion.”

Industry’s responsibility

More specifically, it said greater regulation of alcohol advertising was needed to prevent exposure to adolescents. Regarding 24/7 selling, the ministry said only that more restrictive licensing hours needed “further consideration from multilateral perspectives.”

As part of its ongoing measures, the ministry said it holds temperance campaigns, has restricted advertising and has designated hospitals for treating alcohol-related conditions.

But in a relatively unregulated environment, just what is the responsibility of the drinks industry?

The Korea Alcohol & Liquor Industry Association declined to comment on legal measures or its responsibility for alcohol-related harm. Oriental Brewery also refused to comment. The corporate relations head at a major drinks company in Korea, however, insisted the industry was making real efforts to tackle alcohol abuse, including spending some 5 billion won each year on the promotion of responsible drinking.

“(The) industry is making every effort to promote responsible drinking in Korea which doesn’t get exposed as much as it should in our view,” said the industry member who requested anonymity for himself and his company.

“In 2013, May, there is a world health assembly held by the WHO, where they will announce, in our view, the global alcohol strategy. We don’t know what that’s going to be, but right now what they are doing is, through their regional committees, Asia-Pacific, Europe, they are collecting industry effort or activities and doing an evaluation until then. And then they’ll come out with a basic strategy as to whether they need to strengthen (measures), or they need to deliver as it is, or they need to weaken (measures), they’ll decide.”

He rejected the argument that the industry had a vested interest in ensuring excessive alcohol consumption, adding that it supported measures such as the proposed ban on drinking in parks.

“If people adopt sensible drinking, I think our job is done. Think about it: excessive drinking is really harmful to human beings; if they really enjoy the drinking (responsibly), they’ll enjoy the drinking for a longer time. I am not sure if that is an advantage for the company or not, in our view.”

But even if the industry claims to be onboard with more laws regulating drinking, not everyone appreciates the curtailment of freedom in the name of public health and safety.

Kim Chung-ho, a professor at the Graduate School of Economics at Yonsei University, sees the latest raft of laws as another example of government encroachment on personal freedom.

“Violence in the street after drinking, violence in the police dispatch area, those kinds of behaviors should be prohibited. It has been prohibited by the law but it was not enforced. So the law should be enforced. But that’s it. (Banning) drinking in the park? I don’t think it is necessary. Drinking in the park and having barbecues, it is one of the greatest pleasures of Korea, doing the outdoor activities,” said Kim, adding that he believed the new law would be widely ignored.


Kim, who is a former head of the Center for Free Enterprise, poured further skepticism on the idea of restricting the country’s 24-hour nightlife culture, arguing instead that education, rather than more punitive laws, is the real solution to excessive drinking.

“Permission to drink 24 hours makes Korea more lively. The law used to prohibit drinking at 12, but that law failed. Koreans already have failed experience related to banning alcohol after dark,” said Kim.

“It is very hard to change the behavior but it is very easy to make laws so the politicians choose the easier way … Almost all the intellectuals have such need to regulate and monitor the behavior of ordinary citizens. I think it is not good.”

On the contrary, according to Lee of the National Alcohol Project Supporting Committee, the government is not only entitled to protect the public from the negatives effects of alcohol ― it is obligated to do so.

“Alcohol is both a good which can be consumed legally and a hazardous substance which has been designated a carcinogen by WHO. Therefore, the government has an obligation to protect citizens from alcohol-related harm. Further, the people have right to enjoy drinking, but no one who drinks has any right to threaten the safety of the public through drinking-related violence.”

By John Power (

Intern reporter Jennifer Ryu contributed to this article. ― Ed.

Readers’ Voice

Controlling alcohol...

Bring in the medieval stocks and let the citizens throw rotten eggs and moldy fruit at drunken offenders locked inside the wooden boards; couple a hangover from hell with rotten tomatoes and old fish on your face, and responsible drinking would quickly become a norm.

Alternatively, and thinking of the entertainment of the masses again, the cat o’ nine tails could be an option. At Seoul Plaza, different numbers of lashes could be meted out for differing levels of drunken transgressions ― one for vomiting on a public street, ten for drunk driving (some may think these numbers too weak a punishment, but they’re just examples).

Simpler solution: ban alcohol advertising on TV; especially advertisements that use dancing animated characters, that promote giving alcohol to women to “loosen them up,” that tell women it will make them “more comfortable.”

Then, start a shock ad campaign highlighting the dangers of excessive drinking. Ireland offers a good example in the “know the one that’s one too many” campaign, which showed gory drunk-driver and embarrassing next-day situation adverts. Whereas Ireland used to have a very tolerant attitude toward public drunkenness and an often-nonchalant attitude to drunk driving, today it is not exactly cool to be drunk to excess in public.

Banning smoking in bars and restaurants wouldn’t hurt either. It might negatively affect some businesses, but getting people to take a break from their beer and go outside for some fresh air (even if adulterated by smoke), or getting some people to drink socially at home, would reduce public excess.

― Brian Arundel, Seoul, via Facebook

Teen life tough in Korea...

My school, one of the girls’ high schools with the longest history in Korea and which is located in the heart of Seoul, was recently shocked with the tragic news of the suicide of a junior. What shook us all, students and teachers alike, was not only the suicide itself, but the way it was discovered.

When returning home from his habitual morning stroll, her father actually saw someone fall from the rooftop of his own apartment building. He immediately went to the site of the fall where he looked at the girl’s face, which was beyond recognition because of the impact of the fall. It took quite a while before he and his wife realized that the unfortunate girl was their own daughter.

Although I did not personally know her, the fact that someone in my circle took her own life gave me quite a shock. When the rumor quickly circulated around school that persistent conflicts with her parents drove her to kill herself, we at the school became even more saddened. Even though we do not know whether the rumor is true, her suicide must have devastated her parents, realizing that they no longer have an opportunity to solve the conflicts and unhappy relations with their precious daughter.


Teachers have talked to us about how irresponsible and inconsiderate it was of her to end her life, which was full of so many promises, without considering her parents who must be left heartbroken. I agree, I guess. But at the same time, what my friends and I have been talking about is how hard it is to live as a teenager nowadays in Korea.

Suicide is just one symptom of the troubles facing Korean youth. I think all the institutions responsible for shaping and supporting young people (schools and families, primarily) fail to respond to, or reflect, the actual world we are living in. To me, it seems that grown-ups, including my own parents and teachers, do not look at the world as it is.

Take my parents for example, who I believe are relatively open and liberal on most social issues. While watching the news report about the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s plan to pass Guidelines for Students’ Human Rights in School, my parents commented on this to each other in these terms: “It sounds like it makes sense in most cases, but wouldn’t it be a step too far to include the clause that no student should be discriminated against due to pregnancy?”

Upon hearing them, I shot back at them, saying, “You don’t know the reality, Mom and Dad! Teenage pregnancy is no longer a thing that happens only to a very limited number of irresponsible students.”

We all know that grown-ups worry about us all the time. Maybe too much, I guess. But I also think that there is a strong possibility that they actually worry about us from their own frame of reference, without making efforts to look at what we are struggling with. The temptation to commit suicide is one of the most significant problems plaguing us teenagers.

A survey released in mid-June of this year said that over 350 teenagers in Korea annually end up dead through suicide. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service, the No. 1 cause of teenage deaths is suicide. More shockingly, the survey revealed that one out of five Korean teenagers has thought about suicide at least once, and one out of 20 youngsters has actually attempted to kill themselves.


Aware of the situation, belatedly yet better than none, schools and educational authorities introduced a mandatory system whereby randomly selected students should take psychological tests for depression and suicidal tendency.
When I was asked to take the test this year and went to the test room, I had the opportunity to listen to the honest opinion of other students. Nearly every student there questioned the validity of the random test since anyone who is to be diagnosed with depression or higher-than-average suicidal tendency can refuse to have undergo expert consultation in a follow-up session.

I want to say that it is not easy to live as a teenager in Korea. We do not know how to genuinely connect to others. We do not know how to express our loneliness, frustrations, anger, helplessness and our sense of isolation. Through open and genuinely caring talks with someone surrounding us, we can feel like we are being understood, we can feel mental and psychological security, and we can begin to develop a sense of solidarity with those surrounding us. With this sense of psychological security and solidarity, we can squarely meet all those challenges facing us: college entrance exams, career choices, friendship, family or economy-related difficulties.


I would like to end this letter by making a small suggestion based on my admittedly very limited personal experience. In Korea, subject-matter teachers serve as the ones in charge of all student issues in class. On the other hand, in the United States, specialized, professionally-trained counselors meet with students. They are part of the permanent school staff and are available by appointment, or on a walk-in basis in cases of emergency.

These counselors’ open-door policy reflects their primary function, which is to listen to student concerns from the perspective of a caring adult who will follow ethical guidelines of confidentiality. The counselors then draw on their knowledge and network of resources to make recommendations based on the student’s needs. If implemented in Korea, I think this system would be more effective in enabling the school as well as teachers to respond to student needs for emotional support or counseling.

― Noh Hee-jee, Ewha Girls’ High School, Seoul

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