New alcohol-free malt drinks marketed by beer companies are to come under the scrutiny of the Public Health Ministry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Anti-alcohol advocates, meanwhile, slammed such products as a brazen attempt by alcohol firms to indirectly advertise their brands and seduce new drinkers, especially young people. They found an ally in Dr Nipon Chinanonwet, director of the Disease Control department's Office of Alcohol Control Committee, who said on Tuesday that brewers could be taking advantage of a legal loophole.
"If it's advertised as an alcohol-free malt beverage, there's no problem, but if it's advertised as an alcohol-free beer, we have to examine the intention and whether the advertising is breaking any law," he said.
The new drinks had been registered as food products under FDA control and can therefore be openly promoted, Nipon said, but the advertising features alcohol brand logos, which is broadly prohibited. Nipon noted that other countries had already sealed the loophole by prohibiting any similarities between logos of alcohol and non-alcohol drinks.
Thailand would need to amend its Alcoholic Beverage Control Act 2008 and in the meantime, impose other measures, such as applying FDA regulations on exaggerated advertising, Nipon said. Meanwhile, Stop-Drink Network manager Teera Watcharapranee noted that businesses promoting alcoholic drinks had been trying to find loopholes so they could launch new products and gain the widest public attention.
Such businesses needed to make sure they attracted their target customers and were therefore working hard to gain visibility through the staging of promotional events - which is legal to do for them, he explained.
They had previously tried to use drinking water and soda drinks whose bottles featured logos similar to those on beer products, he said. Their latest ploy involved the launching of "alcohol-free beer", said Nipon. They resorted to "advertising one non-alcohol product that could be advertised legally at the same time as creating a link in the audience's mind to their other alcohol products which are restricted from advertising," he said.
Teera said he believed that the beer firms had no intention of selling "alcohol-free beer" in high quantities because the visibility of brand and logo in advertising was already making them big profits. Such "alcohol-free beer" also tempted youngsters and there was a chance it could lead them to try real beer.
"It's marketing that has a cruel intention but comes in a friendly and noble cloak," he added, speculating that such products may soon be advertised as a health alternative for those wanting to kick the drinking habit, in the same way as electronic cigarettes are presented to smokers. Contrary to scepticism of "alcohol-free beer" as an unlikely profit-maker and merely a tool for other products' marketing, "alcohol-free beer" has steadily grown in popularity in the US, Europe and Russia.
Its sales rose by about 5 per cent a year from 2010-2015 amid the trend towards a "clean-living", healthier lifestyle.