Saeima to consider ways to cut alcohol consumption in Latvia

How to reduce alcohol consumption in Latvian society? After a long break, the Saeima will discuss this at the end of the month. Very little has been done to limit alcohol purchases recently, and the policymakers are up against a powerful industry lobby, Latvian Television reports as part of the Zeme, kur dzer (Land that drinks) series tackling Latvia's drinking issues.

The consumption of alcohol in Latvia is worrying and by international standards is very high. This has implications for health and the economy. Soon, Saeima deputies will have to decide whether and what more effective ways there are to limit alcohol consumption in Latvia. On October 25, amendments to the Law on alcohol circulation will have to be reviewed by the Saeima Social and Labor Affairs Committee – in the second reading. A total of more than 40 proposals have been received.

Andris Berzins (Union of Greens and Farmers), Chairman of the responsible Saeima Committee, said about the proposals: "One big block is about what time to what time it will be allowed to sell, there are about seven, eight variants out there. Then another block is, from what age - there's 18, 20, 21. Then another block is about advertising. Quite a big block. All kinds of commercials - it's on TV, the internet, and stuff like that. It is then about banning or partially banning internet sales."

The more proposals, the more objections from the industry as well.

Dāvis Vītols, chief executive of the Alcohol industry Association, said: “We are against almost all proposals from MPs, except for additional labeling requirements on bottles about the harmful nature of the drinks.”

The industry could yet debate raising the age from which alcohol is allowed to be purchased to curb alcohol sales and the spread of it among young people. But for everything else, the alcohol industry would say no.

According to Vītols, the economy and the state budget, will suffer.

“We are clearly against [banning sales] on Sundays and evenings. Especially against Sundays. Because on Sundays we see most tourists driving to buy alcoholic drinks in the border area. And the Sunday limit means there will be losses in the state budget.”

According to the association, if sales are banned at specific times, people will start stocking up.

Vītols said: “If you're aware that alcohol is out of reach, then you know you have to buy him in by reserve, and then a lot of people will buy it in by reserve. This is also shown by our survey, which we conducted by asking people – what would be the impact? 4% replied that they would see the consumption decrease. 70% said nothing would change. 18% said they would build bigger stocks.”

The ban on alcohol being sold at gas stations is opposed by Ojārs Karčevskis, who runs the Association of Fuel Traders. Karčevskis compared gas stations to small shops where shoppers can buy goods without long queues and at a more expensive price. And in many more rural regions, a gas station is the only place to buy alcoholic beverages.

“It's a basket of services. Some buy fuel. One buys ice cream, one buys alcohol. One buys water, the other buys fast food. It is a small shop that we see everywhere else in Latvia. We are not supportive. We have informed the Saeima Social Affairs Committee accordingly. It comes as it is a sanctioned redistribution of market share among other traders, which will lead to unfair competition,” Karčevskis said.

Similarly, representatives of other sectors told Saeima deputies in their objections that there are no convincing arguments for accepting such bans.

Laura Isajeva, a researcher at the Institute of Public Health at the Stradiņš University, has the opposite thoughts.

Isajeva said: “That's not why those proposals are there – because they like it or would somehow want to harm the alcohol industry. No way. All these proposals are evidence-based, with the aim of improving public health and reducing alcohol-related harm. Those proposals that are already out there would be great if all were supported. This would already have a significant impact on our public health and alcohol-related indicators. It would certainly reduce consumption as well. It would improve the picture as it is now. But theoretically, there are still options to fix it in the future.”

It should be noted that in the last 20 years since Latvia joined the European Union, there have been no significant restrictions regarding the availability, marketing, and advertising of alcohol. Latvia fulfills the minimum required by the World Health Organization. It is true that prices of alcoholic beverages have been raised for several years, with changes in excise tax policy, but this has not brought significant improvements.

Experts have indicated that only all previously offered restrictions will work together.

The World Health Organization has also recommended that politicians take the above proposals into account.

Uldis Mitenbergs, Head of Mission of the World Health Organization in Latvia, explained: “In any case, it is essential that these amendments are adopted. At least in the way they are right now. But in any event, it would also be welcome to take into account proposals aimed at further tightening alcohol restrictions.

“Within a year, we lose about 6,000 residents due to alcohol use. So it's about how big [the city of] Alūksne is. So every year we lose one Alūksne because of the effects of alcohol.”

The suggestion that the proposals could be even stricter was also pointed out by researcher Isajeva. Accepting only a fraction of them is, of course, better than no action, but it would be self-delusion and some pretense that work has been done and will be enough, according to Isajeva.

All of this is agreed with by Health Minister Hosams Abu Meri (New Unity). He also stressed that the issue of restricting the circulation of alcohol is a point of contact with a huge industry, with lobbyists, with a huge budget.

“It's always better to find a compromise. And at least let's fix something than absolutely nothing. I hope the Saeima will work more actively with this law. As Minister of Health, I will definitely be in very close contact with the Saeima and with the Social and Labour Affairs Committee. I think there is a fair amount of time to spend in the Saeima and also discussions, but these issues will not be seen this year. More will work with that law next year. After that, it will take time for entrepreneurs to adapt to the changes they need,“ the health minister said.


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