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Aizliegtais paņēmiens. Operācija: «Covid-19 un alkohols»

How Latvian booze habits changed during pandemic

Have the pandemic restrictions impacted alcohol consumption at all? Latvian Television broadcast 'Aizliegtais paņēmiens' (Forbidden Method) looked at the issue April 19.

What do the data show?

Surveys

A global survey of more than 55 thousand respondents from 171 countries recorded a number of trends in alcohol consumption. First, 29% of those surveyed use less alcohol during Covid-19 than they did before, because of limited social contacts there is no company to drink with. Secondly, about 40% people use alcohol more than before the pandemic, and there are many reasons: more time, boredom, stress, anxiety, depression and a desire to compensate for the limits imposed.

There are no extensive studies on this topic in Latvia at the moment, but the pharmacy Benu with the data company Gemius have tried to explore trends. The findings published in January show that 14% of those surveyed used less alcohol and 18% used more.

Retail data

What has been observed by alcohol retailers and distributors?

"Alcohol consumption has fallen by around 5% over the last two years. (..) If we analyze the category of alcohol in detail, each category – beer, wine, various drinks and cocktails – has a slight drop, but there is a particular drop in the category of strong drinks. The drop in demand for tequila has been 40% last year," said Liene Dupate-Ugule, the head of communications for Maxima.

Store network Rimi has observed that comparing 2019 and 2020 with this year, the total number of units sold has declined slightly. The most popular categories of spirits in Rimi stores are wine and sparkling wines. Gin, rum are popular among spirits. There is also a slight increase in the cognac, whisky and liqueur categories. Due to the decline of tourism in the country due to Covid-19 last year and this year, demand for black balsam has decreased. "

Member of the board of the “Latvijas Balzams” production distributor “Amber Distribution Latvia” and the board member of the Latvian Alcohol Industry Association, Pāvels Fiļipovs confirmed that the quantity sold has decreased: “The figures for spirits are falling, the quantity of wine falls, the sparkling wines. Total consumption on the Latvian market is declining."

Different trends are reported by the State Revenue Service (VID) data in different groups of alcoholic beverages:

  • Vodka: +3.1%
  • Rum and balsam: +14,8%
  • Brandy and cognac: +5.0%
  • Whiskey: +10.5%
  • Wine: -4.6%
  • Liqueur: -6.6%
  • Beers: - 7.8%.

Together, given the large wine components in these figures, there is a 6% drop in 2020 compared to 2019.

What are the data from January and February, when the weekend curfew was introduced in Latvia? Comparing the beginning of this year to the corresponding period last year, both January (-3.8%) and February (0.9%) showed a fall

However, two aspects have to be taken into account when assessing this data. First, in 2020, compared to 2019, the number of foreign tourists who have stayed in Latvia decreased by around 1.2 million or 64%. So those who previously bought and consumed alcohol in Latvia don't do it anymore.

Secondly, Latvia's alcohol policy has so far been largely focused on border trade, with more buyers from Estonia and Lithuania. There are virtually no such buyers at the moment.

According to the estimates of the State Revenue Service, the contribution of border trade has so far been approximately 15% of internal alcohol consumption. “In terms of excise duty, in 2018 there was 16% of the excise duty collected. As a result, more than €39 million has been charged for those drinks purchased in the border area. It declined in 2019. We don't know the data for 2020,” said Deputy Director of the VID Tax Office Baiba Šmite-Roķe.

Therefore, this may mean that the Latvian people drink, in addition to the current consumption, almost all of the tourist norms and the share of Estonian and Lithuanian buyers. Because bars and cafes work only in takeaway mode, alcohol is consumed at home.

Alcohol as cheap therapy?

The “Forbidden Method” listened to people's stories about how the consumption of alcohol during the pandemic changed.

A young woman with a husband and children.

"I drink wine probably like all young people on Friday nights and at house parties, bars. It's transferred more to the house. And we've been drinking alone with my husband for a year now. No matter how absurd it sounds, we meet friends on “Zoom” on Friday night, everyone drinks in their own home. This is the kind of new generation world, the new day-to-day socializing. Unfortunately, life is so stressful right now, I have to admit that we drink quite a lot."

A glass, two, even more. But they have agreed that they'd drink no more than one bottle in one evening.

"I have two higher education degrees, so I see how it sounds. But it's nice to drink, especially now, when there's a lot of stress... I also know, I certainly know what the doctors or addiction specialists will say, but for me, it's really a way of relaxing a little, because there's no less work, no fewer responsibilities. On the contrary.

"We certainly didn't drink so much before, it was Friday, Saturday evenings, maybe once in the middle of the week. At the moment, it is rather the other way around that there is an exception when we do not drink on one or two days."

What does the psychotherapist say?

Psychotherapist, Jānis Vītiņš explained that the pandemic is an incomprehensible time, there is alarm, uncertainty, confusion. “Really uncertainty is an understandable source for fear. And fear, even though it is very natural and healthy, valuable feeling that helps us avoid danger, is also very difficult to endure. And there is a natural desire to avoid this fear. A fear of fear, it may be said. And alcohol and other substances are very good at helping to anaesthetize, remove the soreness,” explained Jānis Vītiņš.

The psychotherapist also added that it is typical for someone to deny the harmful effects of what has helped: “Thus, they seem not to notice that they have become addicted and that drinking has become too frequent.”

What is the national plan?

Along with concerns that Covid-19 may bring new alcohol victims, the problem of alcoholism is neither alien nor new in Latvia. According to various studies, Latvia still has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption across Europe, especially for men.

The European Union data on male alcohol consumption published in 2018 (units of measure - absolute alcohol amount daily) shows the following:

  • In Italy 25.6 grams,
  • In Sweden 36.9 grams,
  • In France 39,9 grams,
  • In Germany 44.1 grams,
  • In Latvia 57.4 grams.

Figures are higher for, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and the Baltic neighbors – Estonia and Lithuania. Our immediate southern neighbors, with 71.9 grams, were even in the first place, but in recent years attempted to leave this “honored” position by introducing a number of changes, such as raised age limit for the purchase of alcoholic beverages to 20 years, and reduced the time of purchase of alcohol to eight in the evening on working days and three in the afternoon on Sundays.

But in Latvia? Until now, alcohol traders and producers, as well as alcohol excise money, around €200 million per year, have been superior to health advocates and their arguments to change or introduce. 

It is true that Latvia currently has a plan. In the middle of the summer last year, the government approved a new strategy to try to reduce the vast consumption of alcohol and also mitigate the effects of alcoholism. The main lines of action are four:

  • reduce the availability of alcohol;
  • limit marketing tools used by traders to promote trade;
  • more research into the problem of alcohol in society;
  • extending treatment and rehabilitation facilities as well as access to outpatient assistance, including adolescents, which may be particularly topical after the Covid-19 period.

At the same time, the Minister for Health acknowledges that it lacks funding. "With the treatment and rehabilitation of alcohol addiction, the majority of these measures need additional public budget funding. And in 2020, the Ministry of Health had also prepared an application for priority measures for the state budget for 2021, but unfortunately, these tasks [funding] were not allocated. Therefore, the Ministry of Health will prepare an application for re-priority measures, ask for additional funding again, but this will be the next year,” explained Inga Birzniece, head of the Health Ministry's Health Promotion and Addiction Prevention Division.

In turn, as the next step, the ministry is planning restrictions on alcohol campaigns and their advertising, which would be ready in a couple of months. In this context, the Ministry of Health is also currently drafting two proposals, which will be amendments to the Law on the Circulation of Alcoholic Drinks and amendments to the Law on Electronic Media. In order to limit the advertising of alcoholic beverages prices and discounts to ban various trade promotion measures, Birzniece said.

One of them, for example,  if you buy two or more bottles of alcohol, you'll get them cheaper, will not be allowed.

Former Minister for Health, now Saeima deputy Anda Čakša said:

“Alcohol is not socks. And we know that these campaigns are, in their essence, very insidious. From an economic point of view, we pay less economically when buying more packaging, but consumption is not going to reducefrom it. (..) When you buy 1 +1, you still have two bottles, and then you're more likely to drink two bottles if you don't have a very strong character or something else."

But the next steps of the plan — maybe go in Lithuania's footsteps? It hasn't been figured out yet. 

It should be noted that there are currently several proposals to combat the widespread use of alcohol from Saeima deputies. For example, Kaspars Ģirgens (“KPV LV”) has called for a reduction in the legal limit for driving. Andris Skride (“Development/For”) called for bottles of alcoholic beverages to indicate how many calories and sugars it contains.

 

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