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Europe: Booze-besotted Baltics wage war against the society-plaguing scourge: Alcohol

Europe: Booze-besotted Baltics wage war against the society-plaguing scourge: Alcohol


The Baltic Times

By Linas Jegelevicius

June 1, 2016

Throughout a dozen years, the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and particularly Lithuania have sat on top of the international booze consumption rankings, but now efforts to clamp down on the misery are stepped up and are panning out. Better off, for now, only is Estonia, where the output and consumption of all alcoholic beverages fell drastically last year. Latvia and Lithuania need to catch up; the situation especially worrisome remains in the latter, warns Dr. Lars Moeller, who leads the alcohol programme for the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) European Region.

Lithuania’s stats most worrisome

Moeller, the WHO’s representative for the European Region, is working on new alcohol consumption data in Europe, and the Baltics, too. Some of the findings were revealed at a high-profile conference on alcohol consumption in Vilnius last week. The full data will be out in September and will make a valuable document allowing for comparison between various European nations.

“A couple years ago, when we released our last report, Lithuania was number one in Europe in the statistics. What was so remarkable then was that alcohol consumption in Lithuania was 30 times higher than in Malta, which is on the bottom of the alcohol consumption rankings. Lithuania still remains on top of the statistics in the recent research,” Moeller told The Baltic Times.

What is characteristic of Lithuania when stacking it up against its other two neighbours in the region is that Lithuania’s alcohol consumption edged up around 17 per cent over the last four years, he says.

“The consumption, meanwhile, has increased little over the time in Latvia and was declining in Estonia,” the WHO official emphasised.

Estonia’s numbers are remarkable

Estonia is again a stand-out of the Baltics boasting a remarkable record in cutting alcoholic beverages’ imports, sales, and consumption. Whether the nation starts seeing a turnaround in the war against alcohol may be too soon to say, experts warn, but the country has been off to a promising start.

In Estonia, alcoholic beverage export sales last year went down by more than a fourth to 149.3 million euros and alcohol imports fell 19 per cent to 227.6 million euros, it appears from the annual alcohol market survey by Estonia’s Institute of Economic Research.

According to the survey, strong alcohol sales totaled 18.3 million litres, 7.4 per cent less than a year earlier. Beer sales amounted to 126 million litres, which marked a year-on-year decrease of 3.4 per cent. Sales of weak alcoholic beverages, at 39.2 million litres, were down by 8.4 per cent.

While the prices of goods and services declined slightly in Estonia last year, alcoholic beverages became 6.1 per cent more expensive mainly owing to a rise in excise duties.

A decline occurred in 2015 in the production volumes of all alcoholic beverages except for fruit and berry wines. The output of strong alcoholic beverages was 15.4 million litres, which represents a year-on-year drop of 22 per cent. The production of vodka fell by more than a fourth or 26 per cent.

Beer output last year was 139.8 million litres, almost 13 per cent less than the year before. The output of weak alcoholic beverages totaled 29.1 million litres, 2.6 per cent less than a year earlier, while the production of fruit and berry wines, at 9.8 million litres, was 2.4 per cent greater than in 2014.

Export sales of alcoholic beverages decreased by more than a fourth to 149.3 million euros. Exports of beer and strong alcoholic beverages fell the most — by 39 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively.

Imports of alcoholic beverages totaled 227.6 million euros, down by 19 per cent against the previous year.

Alcohol consumption per resident down 7 per cent

In 2015, in Estonia 13.8 litres of absolute alcohol was consumed per adult resident, 7 per cent less than in the year before, another finding in the annual overview of the Estonian Institute of Economic Research.

When subtracting tourists’ alcohol purchases and consumption, and adding 0.5 litres of illegal alcohol per resident, Estonian residents consumed 8.7 litres of absolute alcohol per resident and 10.3 litres per adult resident in 2015.

“It is very positive that for the fourth year in a row alcohol consumption in Estonia has declined, but we are still far from reaching the maximum rate advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) of 6 litres of absolute alcohol per adult resident,” the institute said in a statement.

According to the institute, the reasons behind alcohol consumption declining are a change in the attitudes in society, the healthier lifestyle of some residents, a decrease in the frequency of consuming alcohol, and a decline in the average alcohol content of sold products.

“The Estonian government has increased alcohol excise taxes, hiked the prices, and banned nighttime sale and introduced some further limits to alcohol marketing. In addition the level of public awareness has increased. The Ministry of Health and Labour and the minister, Jevgenij Ossinovski, have drawn up a draft that aims at our alcohol policies long-term. It has kept the issue in the media’s limelight for a long time and the public’s overall awareness has grown significantly in favour of the restrictions,” Lauri Beekmann , the secretary general of Estonia- based NordAN, Nordic/Baltic alcohol and drug policy network, told The Baltic Times when asked what lies behind the improved stats.

In addition, Estonia’s alcohol taxes are to increase every year by 10 to 15 per cent until 2020.

“I see that the Baltic States are shifting from liberal alcohol policies that were in effect for dozens of years to more of a Nordic kind of alcohol sales and consumption regulation that prefers health over economic interests,” Beekmann underlined.

Baltics’ tougher alcohol policies

Liudas Ramanauskas, a lawyer of law firm Sorainen, also notes that the Baltic States tend to apply stricter regulation on alcohol sales.

“Specifically, the plan of the Estonian Ministry of Health and Labour seeks to ensure that alcohol advertising on TV, the internet, and in the press presents only product-related information and warnings. Moreover, the aim is to introduce a ban on all outdoor alcohol advertising. The planned changes have attracted considerable attention and feedback both from the alcohol industry and the general public. In addition, a draft law, similar to that one already in effect in Lithuania, aiming to ban alcohol sale at petrol stations, is being prepared in Estonia,” Ramanauskas pointed out to The Baltic Times.

Discussing Lithuania, he referred to the prohibition of alcohol sales at Lithuanian petrol stations which started Jan. 1, 2016.

“It is still too early to conclude whether the restrictions have reached their aims,” the lawyer stated.

Sale of alcohol at petrol stations is still allowed in Latvia. Restricting the sale of alcohol at petrol stations was hotly discussed by stakeholders and other politicians during adoption of the Law on Handling Alcoholic Beverages and also later when amending the law.

“However, the proposal to restrict sales of alcohol at petrol stations was aborted right before the parliamentary vote. It remains to be seen whether Latvia will follow the examples of Lithuania and Estonia in taking more particular steps to prohibit sale of alcohol at petrol stations,” Ramanauskas said.

In Latvia, the average household spent, on average, 111.22 euros for alcoholic beverages and tobacco in 2012.

The expenditures for goods per family amounted to 119.91 euros in 2013 and 113.83 euros in 2014. Data is not available for the year 2015.

Although alcohol consumption has declined in Estonia, data published by Estonia’s National Institute for Health Development show that the number of deaths as a result of alcohol consumption remains at the same level.

“We are glad that alcohol consumption has declined, but the situation still isn’t good because alcohol deaths do not follow the same trend,” the head of the Social Ministry’s public health department, Katrin Karolin, said in a press release. “We can’t see as inevitable the situation where at least 57 people die per 100,000 Estonian residents each year.”

The Institute of Economic Research and the Ministry of Social Affairs are to present their findings in Tallinn at a joint press conference on June 6.

Baltics akin to Russia in booze habits

Beekmann says that the Baltic States have been “famous” for their high alcohol consumption and related harm levels.

“Polish professor Witold Zatonski has shown in his studies that Baltics, so-called EU3, have had an unusually high level of alcohol related injury rates. Higher than in other Eastern European countries and rather similar to the rate in Russia. Only a few years ago, Estonia was among the top three consumers in the world. Now it has moved among the average in Europe; Lithuania is still the third per capita alcohol consumer in the world,” Beekmann pointed out.

The researcher insists the widespread alcohol abuse in the region is partly due to its Soviet heritage.

“There was a popular adage during the Soviet times: ‘Let’s have another shot,’” he recalled.

The data presented last year in the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) economics and public health policy report Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use shows that an average adult in an OECD country consumed, on average, 9.1 litres of pure alcohol in 2013. In Estonia, the amount was 12.3 litres per adult that year.

Whereas overall alcohol consumption decreased a little in the OECD between 1992 and 2013, in Estonia and Russia the consumption grew by nearly 60 per cent, according to the report.

Speaking to The Baltic Times, Ruth Renter, Estonia’s leading Statistician, said he, however, believes that Estonians are not very much different from other nations in the region when it comes to alcohol consumption habits.

“I believe the high numbers are largely due to the tourists who tend to consume a lot of cheaper alcohol in Estonia and take it home from our liquor shops,” Renter stated.

He insisted he was not aware of Estonians’ “alcohol gene” throughout history.

“What makes some people drink heavily is troubles they encounter, I guess. But I do not think this problem in Estonia is so drastic. I think the issue is rather boosted to record highs by the tourists from the Nordic countries,” he underlined.

Beekmann concurs: “Indeed, when ‘Pocket World in Figures 2013,’ published by The Economist, indicates that more alcohol is sold in Estonia per capita than in any other state in the world, it does not feel good. The sales, as a matter of fact, are strongly affected by the Finnish market. As we are so close to Helsinki and the ferry transportation is so easy, many Finns have been coming to Tallinn for cheap alcohol.”

Lithuania among most drunken nations

A 2015 OECD report on alcohol consumption in the year of 2013 in 44 countries has listed Lithuania as the most heavily-drinking country, followed by Austria, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.

According to the data, Lithuanian adults consumed, on average, over 14 litres of alcohol in 2013. In most surveyed countries people consumed less alcohol in 2013 than in 2000, but in Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and some other countries, alcohol consumption grew. Lithuanians drank over four litres more in 2013 than in 2000.

And the most recent data in Lithuania is murky.

According to the Lithuanian Statistics, in 2015, Lithuania produced 1.15 million decalitres of distilled beverages, spirits, a 2.1 per cent increase from 2014. Importantly, the production of fermented alcoholic beverages slumped 26 per cent last year, year-on-year. Among the most ill-affected were sparkling fermented beverages which output plummeted 36.1 per cent last year, fruit and berry wine (down 19.6 per cent) and non-sparkling alcoholic drinks (down 17.5 per cent). Lithuanian breweries produced 31.1 million decalitres of beer in 2015, a 2 per cent dip from the previous year.

Baltics assume Nordic approach

Despite Lithuanian legislature’s attempts to curb alcohol consumption, the results have been tepid.

“Lithuania has been through some serious developments lately when it comes to alcohol policy. Alcohol sales at gas stations were banned from January this year. Later in November, alcohol advertorial restrictions will go into force in Lithuania. And the country is considering some other measures,” Beekmann says.

To note, a couple of far-reaching measures in Lithuania, like the idea of alcoholics’ mandatory treatment and taking away all social benefits from abusers, have not made their way through the legislature.

“No one can be locked up in a free society, even for the benefit of the person suffering from the dependency. We’ve attempted to pass such legislation, but it was doomed due to the aspect of human rights. Stripping alcohol abusers of social benefits has a series of negative aftermaths when the family’s children’s wellbeing is taken into consideration. Therefore the propositions were scrapped,” Marija Ausrine Pavilioniene, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament, told The Baltic Times.

But the Baltics’ starting point in targeting booze consumption is quite different than their Nordic neighbours’ experience.

“They have had for decades one of the best (evidence-based) alcohol policies, especially in Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Therefore they have managed to cut their drinking significantly. When we look at the wider EU context, Estonia, for instance, is among the very few EU countries that still doesn’t have a national alcohol strategy,” Beekmann noted.

Radical initiatives failed in Lithuania

Pavilioniene, MP and human rights activist, blasts the scourge of alcohol for a heavy toll of alcohol-related deaths in Lithuania.

“We are seeing horrible alcohol-related road accidents involving multiple deaths, insane alcohol-related bursts of psychopathic behaviour resulting in the murders of toddlers in the most unthinkable way — throwing them into a well, and we continue to see hundreds and thousands of cases of domestic violence, when the female spouse or cohabitant gets severely beaten. The situation is especially dire in the Lithuanian countryside, where most of the population abuses alcohol, mostly bootleg booze — out of desperation, social seclusion, and despair,” the MP told The Baltic Times.

“I dare say legislative motions just won’t do the job, regardless of the good nature of the initiatives. What we need to have in Lithuania in tackling alcohol abuse is appropriate education, aiming to eradicate the deep-rooted mentality that alcohol does not do any evil, especially if consumed moderately,” the lawmaker said.

In addition, the people, especially in the bucolic parts of the country, need to be given jobs, according to her.

“Unfortunately, the understanding in the countryside is rather convoluted — many of the villagers, and young people, too, rather prefer relying on unemployment and other social benefits than earning money at work,” Pavilioniene pointed out.

New legislation may not work

Yet Lithuania is set to make another attempt to harness alcohol sales in the country. As mentioned, a new amendment to the Alcohol Control Law taking effect on Nov. 1, 2016 will prohibit retailers from displaying discounts on alcoholic drinks. The discounts themselves are not banned, however.

Rusne Naujokaityte of Euromonitor International, however, believes it won’t have a big impact on the local booze market.

“The law change shows the resolve of the authorities to curb alcoholic drink consumption among Lithuanian citizens, who are ranked among the top three heaviest-drinking nations in Europe, according Euromonitor International data. The new amendments to the law will have different effects on the various alcoholic drink products on the market. Beer will not witness major changes as it is famous for big brand loyalty and discounting is massively used by all the biggest brewers, meaning that there are not major differences in prices,” she pointed out to Lithuania Tribune.

When it comes to wine, the new regulation will increase polarisation, she says — it will reduce the size of the middle range wine price band.

“Wine enthusiasts who want to buy quality wine will switch to more expensive options from their favourite regions, not risking a selection from the mid-price category. Those people who do not care so much about quality will select wine brands from the economy segment, in which price competition will be fiercer. As a result, it will not make sense to discount good-quality wines any longer,” Naujokaityte underlined.