Vietnam has been hit with a bona fide beer bonanza.
Locals are crowding into new cavernous beer halls to imbibe the night away, expats are debuting one craft microbrewery after another. Foreign brands from Heineken to Sapporo are relying on Vietnam for global sales growth, and investors are watering at the chance to snap up assets like the Sabeco brewery.
It would be easy to think that just about everyone is getting a buzz from the action. Everyone, except the government officials now looking to crack down on beer ads.
The Ministry of Health has proposed a draft law that would restrict beer advertising, which it fears could soon become a threat to public health. The rules would ban such ads in outdoor settings like billboards, in films and shows with children, and on social media.
Vietnam already bans ads for hard alcohol. But in countries that prohibit ads for both beer and spirits, overall consumption is 11 percent lower than in countries that merely focus on liquor, according to Tran Thi Trang, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s legislation department.
"Every year, the alcohol companies spend trillions of dong on advertising and marketing,” she was quoted as saying in a post on the government’s news site. “If this did not stimulate consumption, would they spend so much money?"
Bonkers for beer
Fittingly, it is precisely the fact that Vietnamese have gone bonkers for beer that prompted her ministry to introduce the legislation. Alcohol-infused recreation goes back a long ways, of course, from the peasants fermenting their own rice wine, to the U.S. soldiers who took a liking to the local 33 Beer in the Vietnam War.
But today is different, as citizens in peace time have the growing wealth and leisure to down lager into the wee hours, often for less cost than a bottle of water.
Policymakers worry that as drinking culture rises, so will Vietnam’s rates of cirrhosis, addiction, and drunk driving. The communist country already has a high prevalence of hepatitis B, the main cause of liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
“Beer and alcohol production play an important role in the development of the economy and society, contributing significantly to the state budget, with about [$2.2 billion]” Nguyen Van Viet, chairman of the Vietnam Beer, Alcohol, and Beverage Association, said in a government post.
This is despite WHO estimates that damage associated with alcoholic drinks, from worker productivity to public health expenses, can cost a country anywhere from 1.3-12 percent of gross domestic product.
Officials aim to balance those costs with the benefits to the economy, investment, and trade. Even Australia gives beer a shout-out whenever boasting of improved trade with Vietnam, where it has become the biggest supplier of wheat and malt imports.
“Beer and snacks aren’t just fun,” said Regan Leggett, executive director for thought leadership at Nielsen, which released a report in March on increased discretionary spending in Vietnam and four other countries. “They are lead indicators of continued buying preference outside of essentials.”
Beer is big business, and lobbyists also say further restrictions could put a dent in tourism. Trang is unconvinced, though.
"If visitors come to Vietnam just because their country controls alcohol use, and Vietnam does not,” she said, “then we need to review these policies because they go against international practice."