Proposed booze ban ruffles Ho Chi Minh City feathers

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Traffic police want to ban all alcohol sales past 11 p.m. to cut down on drunk-driving, but most others agree such a prohibition would not solve the problem or be the slightest bit enforceable

Local patrons enjoy an evening drink at one of Ho Chi Minh City's many sidewalk eateries, where alcohol is nearly always available. The city is considering banning alcohol sales after 11 p.m. in a controversial plan aimed at reducing traffic accidents. 

Nguyen Van Hung does not think that Ho Chi Minh City authorities will approve a proposal by the city traffic police to ban alcohol sales after 11 p.m.

"The police have failed to shut down eateries occupying sidewalks illegally. How could they enforce a ban on selling beer and alcohol at restaurants, which would be a far more difficult thing to do," said the owner of two restaurants in Go Vap District.

"Moreover, drinking is a well-entrenched habit of many city dwellers and many people accustomed to hanging out late to unwind after work," he added.

Most HCMC locals, expats and tourists Vietweek spoke with seemed to agree with Hung, contending that the imposition of such a ban in the hopes of reducing traffic accidents was unfeasible and ill-conceived.

Some have expressed concerns that if the proposed ban were to take effect, it would put an end to droves of foreign tourists who have come to delight in the array of social drinking options HCMC has to offer. Furthermore, unlike expats and local residents, most tourists do not drive while visiting HCMC.

On May 7, Tran Thanh Tra, head of the city's Traffic Police Division, proposed that the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal administration, prohibit the sale of alcohol (including beer and wine) after 11 p.m. as part of efforts to reduce the number traffic accidents caused by drunk driving.

It was actually merely a revised draft proposal that was rejected last month, which sought to ban all alcohol sales past 10 p.m.

Tra said 70 percent of all traffic accidents involve driving under alcohol influence.

"Rampant and uncontrolled beer and liquor sales is the reason for the increase in traffic accidents," he said, adding that most take place between 6 p.m. and midnight.

According to the HCMC Traffic Safety Committee, there were 1,533 traffic accidents over the first four months of this year that killed 247 people up 24 percent over last year while more than 1,000 others have been injured in crashes so far this year.

The city has more than 5.6 million registered motorbikes and about 550,000 cars, including the more than 82,800 motorbikes and 4,200 cars which were registered during the first quarter of 2013.

In Vietnam, one's blood alcohol content (BAC) must be under 50mg/100ml equal to one can of beer or 30 milliners of brandy to legally operate a motorbike. The threshold for those who drive cars is zero.

Ngo Minh Chau, deputy director of HCMC Police Department, said the number of accidents often spikes during weekends and holidays when more people tend to drive drunk.

He said the traffic police have been unable to control the situation due to their lack of manpower.

Vietnam ranked third in Asia in beer consumption after China and India, according to a 2011 survey by the Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings.

In 2011, beer production in Vietnam increased by 240 percent over the previous year. There are currently about 500 factories nationwide with a brewing capacity of 1.2 billion liters a year.

Another survey conducted by industry analyst Euromonitor International found Vietnam consumed 2.6 billion liters of beer in 2011, the most in Southeast Asia.

Greig Craft, founder and director of the US advocacy group Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, said decades of research has shown that alcohol consumption increases the risk of being involved in traffic accidents.

"Not only does alcohol impair vision and reaction time, it is also associated with impaired judgment and so is often linked to other high-risk behaviors such as speeding or not using helmets or seatbelts," he said.

However, experts and residents said the proposed plan to ban alcohol sales past 11 a.m. is simply not a solution to the problem.

Nguyen Thanh Trung, a resident in Thu Duc District, said many Vietnamese people will insist on drinking whenever they please and that there was no earthly way such a ban could ever be enforced.

"It's bad if the city bans drinking at restaurants and bars at night because many people rely on socializing during these hours. People can have a sober friend drive them home or take a taxi," he said.

Like Trung, many HCMC dwellers doubted if the ban would be enforceable if approved.

Craft of AIP said relevant authorities should take into account specific factors like the addictive nature of alcohol and other cultural factors to help society eliminate its habit of drinking and driving.

In response to the proposed ban, Nguyen Huu Tin, HCMC's vice mayor, said the city government will consider and try to come up with an optimal regulation.

He said what was most urgent was to mobilize as many police officers as possible to patrol and check people suspected of driving under the influence.

"Motorists must be subjected to checks without warning, anywhere, anytime they are on the road. That will make people will think twice before drinking and driving," he said.

The municipal administration had yet to make a decision on the proposal as of press time.

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