SEOUL, June 2 (Korea Bizwire) – A slow but noticeable change is coming to South Korea’s once fierce and often authoritative drinking culture.
Whiskey sales have struggled with negative growth for eight consecutive years, plummeting from 2.84 million crates (18 500-mililiter bottles) in 2008 to 1.67 million in 2016, while HiteJinro, a major distiller here, saw its beer sales shrink by 12.4 percent last year compared to 2015.
OECD data also shows South Koreans loosening their drinking habits. In the 1980s, South Korea ranked 8th among OECD member nations in terms of annual alcohol consumption per capita (aged 15 and above) at 14.8 liters. By 2013, South Korea was 22nd, with the figure dropping to 8.9 liters.
Although the country moved up again to 14th in 2015, at 10.9 liters, the apparent trend is that drinking is less of a binging activity and more of a pastime pursuit with a “choice.”
“Twenty to thirty years ago, South Korea was considered among OECD members as one of the most heavily drinking nations. Now, alcohol consumption per capita is less than the OECD average,” said a local industry watcher, who anticipates the declining trend will accelerate into the future.
Multiple factors have attributed to the change, including less frequent corporate get-togethers that encourage heavy drinking; the emergence of “drinking solo,” a culture in which individuals choose to enjoy drinks by themselves at their own discretion; or, simply, with more South Koreans having the courage to say “no” to alcohol.
There are online communities formed by non-drinkers, including a Facebook group called Gathering of People Who Hate Booze (translated) with more than 200,000 followers, and college societies for so-called “no-alcoholers,” all advocating on behalf of teetotalism which was once (and is still to a certain extent) frowned upon.
“Heavy drinkers were considered open-minded and highly sociable in the past. But now, being a good drinker is not always well-perceived by society, and sometimes quite the opposite is true,” said professor Chun Sung-soo from Sahmyook University’s Department of Health Management, in an interview with the Seoul Economic Daily.
“It is the same for businesses, which are starting to believe that refraining from heavy drinking is the shortcut to success,” he said.
The new anti-corruption law – prohibiting public officials, journalists and school faculty from receiving meals exceeding 30,000 won ($26.78) in value – has also been effective in transforming business and political receptions that traditionally included costly meals and booze.
Corporate tracker CEO Score said that the amount spent on such receptions by 111 affiliates of South Korea’s top 30 conglomerates decreased by 28 percent in Q4 2016 compared to Q4 2015.
“Since the anti-graft law took effect (September 2016), we rarely have business meals with our clients. And when we do, it’s usually a meeting over a modest lunch,” said Lee, 45, who works at a major conglomerate affiliate.
Despite the changes, alcohol is still an essential recipe for social gatherings in South Korea, and there’s much to be done as a society to bring about a healthier drinking culture, industry watchers say.
“The repercussions of heavy drinking can be huge. But it’s difficult for officials to implement a policy curbing alcohol consumption because of society’s generous attitude towards drinking, as well as its dependence on alcohol,” said Chun.
“To effectively reduce the devastating consequences of drinking, we should focus more on changing society’s perspective of alcohol instead of controlling the very act of drinking.”
By Lina Jang (firstname.lastname@example.org)