LTV's De Facto examines alcohol advertising changes in Latvia

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Discussions about limiting alcohol advertising in Latvia have been ongoing for at least a decade. The current amendments, tabled last week in the government, took two years to prepare and are still not fully agreed upon, Latvian Television's broadcast De Facto reported on March 27.

As reported earlier by LSM, the new amendments to the Law on the Circulation of Alcoholic Beverages and the Law on Electronic Media indicate that all alcoholic drinks will have to include nutritional information on their labels; there would be a ban on free alcohol at gambling halls; advertising would be restricted, and small (0.2 l) PET packages of strong alcoholic drinks (over 22% alcohol) would be banned. 

Given the hot debate among the government members and the objections from the alcohol and advertising industry, the new rules could look different when the Saeima gets to adopt them – if they are adopted at all.

The Health Ministry has calculated that healthcare spent 56.6 million euros in 2021 for the direct treatment of alcohol-caused issues.

Special offers for alcoholic beverages should not be advertised – the Health Ministry wanted to introduce such changes already back in 2013. However, after attempts to harmonize the project for more than a year, at that time the committee of the government chaired by Laimdota Straujuma (New Unity) decided to reject it before it came to the government's agenda at all.

Now, nearly a decade later, there is a similar idea on the agenda. The proposals sent to the Saeima are now relatively modest. 

“I have to say honestly, I would certainly be more pleased if more radical steps were taken because there is evidence that the most effective way to reduce alcohol consumption is to review the alcohol price policy and the accessibility policy,” said the lead researcher of Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Institute for Public Health, Inese Gobiņa.

The repeated attempt to bring about changes began shortly after approving an action plan for the next two years in 2020 to reduce alcohol consumption and limit alcoholism.

The original version of the bill had tougher advertising restrictions, and it was also planned to shorten the time of alcohol sales from 10:00 to 20:00. These steps disappeared from the project after the first public consultation in the summer of 2021. Alcohol producers and traders, as well as the Economics Ministry, strongly objected to the shortening of selling time, citing rural shops being dependent on alcohol sales.  Latvia also has the lowest excise tax on alcohol among the Baltic States, except for beer where a slightly lower rate is in Lithuania. Changes in the rate of excise duty are not currently being discussed.

The Latvian Alcohol Industry Association and the Latvian Chamber for Commerce and Industry approached the Health Ministry recently, first of all, to request a deadline for reviewing the changes and abolishing them if they do not work.  The two organizations also tried to convince the ministry that the warning statements should not indicate that alcohol use is harmful to health, but that "excessive" alcohol use is harmful.

The Health Ministry does not agree with this position.

"Maybe the alcohol industry is very keen to cultivate the story that you can drink in moderation. But the question is whether it really is the best solution. Because the World Health Organization has also changed its position - that there is no safe dose. And this too is the message that we would also like to give to the public that there is no safe dose!" said Health Ministry's expert on addiction prevention Sanita Lazdiņa.

Statistics show that the situation in Latvia has deteriorated over the last decade, unlike many other countries where people drink less. Last year Latvia was in first place in the European Union (EU) with 12.2 liters per person aged 15 and over. Latvians spent €951 million on booze in 2021, equivalent to 2.8% of GDP. That represents 5.0% of total consumption expenditure, making it proportionally the country where households spend more on alcohol than anywhere else in the EU.

“My personal feeling is that now - do something! Because it's so bad! And the consumption rates of alcohol use go up, and what I see, above all, is that public health indicators, which are one hundred percent related to alcohol mortality – such as liver cirrhosis, alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy, are abnormal costs in health care. But of course, above everything is a human as such, who moves the economy and as if is valuable. At least on paper,” said the RSU researcher, Gobiņa.

The amendments reduce alcohol consumption have so far not been agreed to by two ministries – Economy and Agriculture.

“First of all, our arguments remain in the section that there is no clear objective and indicators to be achieved where it could be measured how many amendments to the law will work and how successfully they will work. Nor is the impact assessed how difficult it will be for entrepreneurs and economy in general. In fact, we are in favor of meaningful and really targeted measures to reduce alcohol consumption,” said Ilze Indriksone, Minister of Economics.

Objections also came from other ministers. However, the Minister for Health, Līga Meņģelsone (delegated by the United List), does not think that the amendments will lack support in the Saeima.

“At the moment, of course, colleagues have pointed to some nuances, and we certainly found them all, and perhaps we will also clarify them, but in any case, overall, I think that there is support,” the Minister for Health said.

A study on alcohol use, the consequences and economic benefits of prevention in Latvia is currently being carried out on the order of the Health Ministry. The results are expected at the end of the year.

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