An analysis of the battlefield that is Estonian politics after the government released the new alcohol draft law: what’s the main points of the bill; what’s the evidence-based; what’s the reaction of Big Alcohol?

How to change a profoundly alcoholized mentality? According to the National Institute for Health Development in Estonia (NIHD/TAI) only 13% (2012) of the adult population do not use alcohol at all and the abstention rate is actually decreasing. Back in 2007 the rate of Estonians living free from alcohol was 16%!

The main reason to use alcohol is to celebrate a holiday (very popular – the Estonian Midsummer, Jaanipäev), followed by social alcohol use and taste. Practically all bigger celebrations in Estonia are accompanied by heavy alcohol intake.

Let us look at some more evidence (source of all data: NIHD/TAI):

  • Every second man between the age of 16 to 44 gets drunk once a month.
  • In the age group of 11 to 15 years of age Estonia ranks fourth in Europe for heaviest alcohol intake.
  • 7% of Estonian men use alcohol daily.
  • The rate of alcohol-related accidents is 3 to 4 times higher compared to the Nordic countries.
  • In 2012, 56% of all lethal accidents were alcohol related and 12% of traffic accidents were caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol, killing 11 people and injuring 234 people.
  • 73% of fire deaths were alcohol related, and so were 45% of drowning incidents.
  • 500-700 people annually die from alcohol related diseases, more than 500 of those are men.
  • Between 9.000 to 10.000 Estonians die from partially alcohol related diseases.

Minister of Health and Labour, Yevgeni Ossinovski, stated recently that according to official numbers 60.000 people in Estonia are alcohol addicted and this is excluding the hidden statistics. The 2014 edition of the regular study on the behaviour of school children revealed that 85% of 15-year olds have tried alcohol and half of them have already been drunk.

Put in dramatic words: the whole Estonia is sunk into an alcohol swamp. And I could write long posts about the alcohol norm in Estonian society, but for that I’ll need an extra blog entry.

Based on all the devastating evidence, updating the Estonian alcohol and advertisement law has been long overdue.

On October 19, 2015, Minister Ossinovski presented the new alcohol draft law with accompanying measures foreseen to change also the advertisement law. Unlike the mainstream opinion on alcohol, he has clearly said in several of his statements after presenting the draft law, that alcohol kills and is poison. He has replied to the questions on industry interests and profit losses, by saying that well, it is clear that the interests are prevalent. Despite alcohol industry pressures, he clearly acknowledges the public health problem, perhaps even a public health catastrophe that alcohol causes in Estonia.

The proposed new draft law focusses mainly on restricting availability and minimizing marketing. By 2017 all supermarkets have to separate alcohol from other goods. By 2018 alcohol can only be sold in completely separated areas (separation by intransparent wall/door) or directly from sales staff – in that case giving no access to the customer to alcohol directly. Equally, by 2018, the sale of alcohol in petrol stations and in the food providers in the petrol stations should be prohibited. The rights of local authorities to limit alcohol sales hours would be extended.

The measures to limit marketing  include:

  1. A complete ban of street advertisement of alcohol
  2. Ending product presentations in shops.
  3. It would also not be allowed anymore to make special offers on alcohol to increase the sale.
  4. Happy hours in bars would be banned.
  5. TV and radio advertisement should become completely neutral, allowing only one colour background, plain bottle and health warning. No audio-visual effects (no people, landscapes, no music etc.) would be allowed.
  6. Also, alcohol ads on newspapers and magazine front and back pages (including special additions between newspapers and magazines) would be prohibited.

Now, this sounds pretty awesome for a country like Estonia with high consumption levels and destructive consumption patterns. But the battle is only to begin. Right after the revelation of the new draft law, that in fact has not really got any publicity until it was published now, has provoked, one could even say, outraged responses from alcohol industry, and also from TV broadcasters.

Liviko, the leading hard liquor producer in Estonia has called the proposals insulting to any alcohol producing industry. Liviko would expect some basic decency from ministries when proposing new laws. They also underline that this new law would worsen the situation and people would end up in a situation where they would not know how to behave with alcohol, how to deal with alcohol. In fact, Liviko is saying that people are taken for stupid, for unable to handle alcohol. They also deny the link between alcohol and NCDs. They admit that the majority of deaths in Estonia are caused by NCDs, but then add a cynical warning to the Estonian food- and furniture industry saying that watch out, so many people die from NCDs caused by obesity and lack of physical activity.

The Estonian Food Industry Association is appalled and says these measures are not at all proportionate. They forget nevertheless that alcohol is no ordinary commodity and should not be treated like one.

TV3, that belongs to MTG group of Swedish commercial broadcasters, has threatened to revoke its licence and leave the market if advertising gets so drastically reduced. They are underlining that these changes would lead to shutting down 2 to 3 commercial channels in Estonia.

But of course, the alcohol industry in Estonia, as also elsewhere, is denying that advertising increases consumption and alcohol-related harm. I guess they only do it for having “pretty” pictures in the media…

Ironically, Hando Sinisalu, president of the Best Marketing International (who recently declared Viru Valge vodka social campaign, produced by Liviko, being the best digicampaign of the year – a campaign that originally stated it is targeting to increase its shares among young people and after an outcry changed it to brand boosting), got rather upset by the statements of the alcohol industry saying ads don’t work. Sinisalu says, of course they work, they aim to increase profits and consumption, why else would anyone do commercials then. He also adds that as long as advertising alcohol is allowed, they will do it. And if the state aims to reduce consumption, they should cut or prohibit advertisements. Smart words from someone in the business.

I hope the coalition aligns itself behind this draft law and also the opposition in the parliament understands that this is one of the times they would have to make an “unpopular” decision to build a better Estonia for the future.

A better Estonia where children can grow up in safe, happy, alcohol-free environments. An Estonia where people don’t die en masse from alcohol related diseases, won’t get killed in traffic, fire, water incidents/accidents. Every human life matters! Let’s not waste any on alcohol.