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South Korea reins in the boozers

The Straits Times, 20 October 2000

Plagued by a hard-drinking culture that is costing lives, the country runs campaigns to teach people to cut down on drink, or say no altogether

SEOUL—South Koreans’ addiction to hardcore drinking, which has sometimes ended in death, has led to a slew of campaigns designed to rein in out-of-control drinkers.

Anyone who has been on a Korean-style night out knows the dangers that lurk behind the words, Let’s go for a drink, especially if they come from a typical South Korean businessman.

Not only does the offer mean going through three to four rounds of drinking at different venues, but it may also mean gulping down boilermakers—shots of whisky or soju in a glass of beer—in a cycle of boozing that leads to a hangover that feels worse than death.

Such wild drinking has taken a heavy toll.

Twenty-two per cent of South Korean men are said to be alcoholics; the country has the highest alcohol consumption rate in the world; many businessmen lose their lives because of over-indulging; and about three university students a year die due to alcohol shock.

Such tragedies have spurred a new trend here, a grassroots movement South Koreans would not have dreamt of five years ago—saying no to alcohol.

Drinking should be fun, not torturous or life-threatening, said Mr Kim Jae In, an official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

We want to get people to say ‘no’ when people try to force them to drink.

The Health and Welfare Ministry launched a campaign earlier this year that sets guidelines designed to control hard drinkers.

Known as the Ten Commandments of Drinking, the list includes directives like: don’t force others to drink; drink slowly; don’t consume boilermakers; don’t drink more than twice a week; say no when you don’t want to drink.

A similar effort has been made by Bacchus (Boosting Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students), an organisation headed by Kim Seung Soo, 26, that encourages university students to adopt a voluntary system of drinking.

The drinking culture in colleges today is very disturbing, said Mr Kim.

Seniors force their juniors to drink, and ultimately drive them to develop health problems and abnormal drinking habits. Then, the younger students do the same thing to the next class.

The seniors are certainly at fault, but those who don’t say ‘no’ are also to blame.

Other anti-drinking activists like Professor Lee Mi Hyong and Catholic priest Huh Keun have set up South Korean chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and run hotlines for troubled drinkers.

Despite these recent efforts, most critics agree that the problems with drinking are not likely to vanish at once.

However, the public campaign to encourage responsible drinking seems to be meeting with some success, though changing times may be the real cause of the new attitudes.

For instance, more South Koreans seem to be reluctant to be the alcohol brute.

—The Korea Herald/Asia News Network