Parliamentary discussions on alcohol advertising limits in Latvia continue

Raising the age limit from which alcohol can be purchased, banning alcohol sales at gas stations, as well as limiting alcohol sales on the Internet, are some of the proposals discussed at the parliamentary level to limit the availability of drinks in Latvia, Latvian Radio reported June 20 as part of its investigation series of Latvia's multifaceted drinking problem Zeme, kur dzer (The land that drinks).

The Saeima conceptually supported the amendments to the law intended to reduce alcohol consumption in May, but will continue to see them in the autumn in the second reading. The bill's rapporteur in the Saeima, Hosams Abu Meri (New Unity), is convinced that advertising limitations could reduce alcohol consumption.

"Looking at the statistics that in Latvia we are in a very bad place in Europe with alcohol consumption per person, starting at the age of 15, we need to do something and cannot stand aside and say that everything is fine. Of course there is still a lot to be discussed about, but we need to move forward," said Abu Meri.

The Saeima Social and Labour Affairs Committee is responsible for the draft alcohol advertising restrictions law, in which a series of proposals for advancing to the second reading have also been submitted by the beginning of June.

"We presented a proposal that involves increasing the purchase age to 20 years. Also, about working times – that between Sunday 3 PM and Monday 8 AM you cannot buy alcohol. Also, another proposition, knowing that many stores, especially smaller ones, are closed on Sundays, then people usually go to the gas station. And our proposal is not to allow the sale of alcohol in gas stations," said the Member.

A number of similar proposals have also been tabled by other Members. The Ministry of Health has submitted an additional proposal – to ban the sale of alcohol on the Internet, which is currently still allowed due to changes adopted during the pandemic, said the senior expert of the Ministry's Department for Health Promotion and Prevention of Dependencies, Elēna Zviedre.

The amendments tabled by the government were originally "decorative", said MP Edgars Putra (United List). In his opinion, these amendments will not significantly address the problems identified by narcologists. Those would be more affected by the gradual increase in excise duties on alcohol and the alignment of rates with neighboring countries. He also questioned data showing that Latvia has one of the highest alcohol consumptions.

"The full analysis is missing, because when we look at the level of the Baltic States, if we equate all the game rules and the rates of excise duty to alcohol, we would see the real picture, because these 12.4 liters per resident in Latvia…. I know for sure that there are traders who say that on Sunday there are a lot of Lithuanians in the border area who buy alcohol in Latvia and because of the excise rates in Estonia, we have a big influx in Valka. So I think that figure is preliminary, I don't believe that we as a nation are the ones who drink the most," Putra said.

At the same time, the Member agreed that the matter should be moved further. He tabled a proposal for an exception to the proposed ban on the sale of alcohol on the Internet.

"We have a specific group defined by law, which is small producers of alcohol, producing a maximum of 15 thousand liters of wine per year or 1000 liters of strong alcohol. And I looked at their arguments, and I thought they were convincing enough. They have more niche products [..]. My proposal is that we leave these small winemakers out of this and they can do it because [..] it is not everyday consumption. The small local producer needs to be supported and I do not believe that this on its large-scale background is causing material damage to the public," Putra said.

MP Linda Liepiņa (Latvia First) believes that combating illegal alcohol trade is a more acute problem. She also doubts the expected result of introducing the limits currently laid down in the draft law.

Meanwhile, Progressives MP Edmunds Cepurītis highlighted the fact that the draft law was based on policies already in place in Lithuania that have allowed alcohol consumption to be reduced there, but several of the planned sections have disappeared in the drafting process.

In the Social and Labour Affairs Committee, the bill was discussed in April with Health Ministry, experts and industry representatives. Sarmīte Skaida, a doctor of the Riga Psychiatry and Narcology Center, called on the discussions not to be based on the false assumption that alcohol problems in Latvia are only affecting a particular group because it affects people with the most varied income, age, place of residence, or social status.

"Every day, working in admissions and in departments, I see these patients. [..] I see that homeless people end up with us less and less, the people are totally normal. And what's their drink of choice – it's those little cocktails. When you come from work, you buy one, you buy another… It's very convenient to put it in your pocket, but what happens to your liver - it doesn't like a drop of alcohol every day.

"Young people come, aged 16-17, with over two promille, they are not passed out, they are calm, yes, tipsy I see, but they can talk to me. You know, of course, not just restrictions work, but they work in such a way that we want to protect these users at risk, [..]  because if the shop is already closed or you have to drive somewhere far to get alcohol, then they will not run there and buy it," Skaida said.

The Latvian Alcohol Industry Association, meanwhile, expressed that the proposed amendments are easy to bypass. The Latvian Advertising Association also questioned whether changes to the law would reach the goal of reducing alcohol consumption in Latvia. However, in the autumn, further extensive discussions are expected in Saeima committees, with the draft law being viewed in the second reading.

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