Myanmar's beer and cigarette investment boom raises alarm

As Myanmar continues to open its domestic market to investors from around the globe, concerns are rising about the damage that will be caused by the flood of investment into the making and promotion of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.

The government is shortchanging its people by encouraging investment in the making, distribution, sale and promotion of products that can kill, analysts say.

Sustainable and socially beneficial economic reforms require greater focus on investment in infrastructure, education, technology and other productivity-enhancing sectors, they say.

Of particular alarm is the Myanmar Investment Commission's decision to open the tap for investment in beer and other alcoholic beverages, after decades of tight control over the manufacture, sale and promotion of products that were considered "unsuitable for the public" by the military government.

Commission staff say the decision to do so was made about seven months ago and that since last July the commission has given permission for six more breweries to open.

Diamond Mayson Industries received approval to open a brewery from the commission last week.

Beside the breweries, the commission has also given a local company permission to import and distribute nationally liquor, beer and cigarettes, said commission staff who asked not to be named. The company will sell franchises in Yangon, Mandalay, Taunggyi, Lashio, Kyaing Tong, Mawlamyaine, Sittwe and Magway. Myanmar produces nearly 1,500,000 hectoliters of beer a year - or about 250 million 640 ml bottles of beer - at the three breweries.

Officially, Myanmar also produces about 200 million bottles of liquor annually, but the number is far higher because it does not include brands that are unregistered to avoid tax. There are about 100 liquor brands registered in Myanmar, but millions of bottles of unregistered and illegally imported liquors and beer are also sold.

One research study estimated, for example, that up to 10 million cans of Beer Chang are imported from Thailand via the black market every year.

According to a published list of the 100 top commercial taxpayers, Myanmar has nine cigarette and tobacco-product factories, with Rothmans of Pall-Mall Myanmar Pte. Ltd. controlling 85 per cent of the official cigarette market. Black market brands, however, are so prevalent that they are sold at supermarkets. Two new factories are being built by Shwe Than Lwin and British American Tobacco Myanmar Ltd.

The local market is already overflowing with alcohol, beer and cigarettes so allowing more breweries and cigarette factories will only allow these products to take a greater toll on public health and national interests, analysts say.

Research published in January found that alcohol consumption has been rising every year in Myanmar with almost half the country's male population now identifying themselves as drinkers. Twenty-five per cent of male drinkers consume more than five drinks a day, the researchers told the 41st Annual Myanmar Health Research Conference in January.

Alcohol consumption is rising because beer and other alcoholic beverages are inexpensive and everywhere, they said. The opening of pubs and bars in residential areas has resulted in more teenagers, including girls, drinking frequently, the researchers said.

Beer halls are replacing traditional teashops as the social venue of choice and some are even opening near schools.

Health officials say the government needs to keep an eye on these social developments and to consider their impacts.

Parents often complain that liquor and beer is on display everywhere now and that there is no barrier preventing their children from obtaining the products. Market competition is likely to accelerate this social trend unless government officials adopt policies and regulations to curb the expansion of the beer and alcohol market.

Rising consumption of alcohol is likely to lead to alcohol abuse that could weaken public health, productivity and social stability, analysts say, adding that long-term consequences are not being factored into government policies that are encouraging an alcohol and cigarette investment boom that will scar future generations.