Social systems, wars, political decisions, and alcohol norms have shaped today’s alcohol consumption trends in Latvia. Understanding alcohol harm requires looking back at how alcohol began to be consumed and how the trends developed over the years.
Early beginnings: aristocratic alcohol trade fuels massive harm
Alcohol starts to become a problem in Latvia in the 15th and 17th centuries when distilleries and breweries started popping up across the country. The nobles monopolized these lucrative businesses.
If we talk about Latvia, then this is the time when distilleries or breweries become a monopoly for local nobles. And it is a very good source of income,” said Mārtiņš Vesperis, chief researcher of the Research Department of the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of Medical History, as per LSM.lv.Mārtiņš Vesperis, chief researcher, Research Department, Pauls Stradiņš Museum of Medical History
The book “Latvieši” by Garlieb Merkel in 1796 highlights alcohol harm as the second general feature of Latvia. Even then a pervasive alcohol norm had taken root in Latvian society. Merkel writes that mothers used to dip a cloth in a little vodka and let their babies suckle on it to put them to sleep. Children as young as 14 years were consuming alcohol. Many adults were having alcohol almost every Sunday.
Mr Vesperis says that the German barons accustomed Latvians to alcohol, and then German pastors started the fight against the harms caused by alcohol products. Merķelis was also a pastor, a representative of the Enlightenment, and a Baltic German publicist.
In present day alcohol in Latvia is associated with nightlife and pubs. But in the olden days pubs were not the same as today. They were postal pubs, widely used as postal stops to rest horses and spend the night. Pubs in Latvia began around the 13th and 14th centuries. These postal pubs were widespread in Latvia by the 19th century. In the 19th century, the Swedes in Vidzeme (one of the historical Latvian lands) even determined that the pub had to be within a certain distance. According to sources, about 10 to 14 kilometers away.
The beginning of the alcohol prevention movement in Latvia
The liberation of peasants took place in the 19th century. While Merkel believed that when farmers gained freedom they will use less alcohol, that did not happen. Vesperis explains this was because the social landscape was changing. In the first half of the century, the liberation was not felt in Vidzeme and Kurzeme provinces. Then in the middle of the 19th-century farmers began to buy out their houses slowly. Farmers also started to move out of their parishes into the city. New cities were formed, new houses built and the railway developed. The influx of people into cities meant job demand was high but jobs were harder to find. Wages were low. Working conditions were tougher. At best workers only had Sundays free. Then people started using alcohol as unhealthy coping mechanism to survive these tough conditions.
As alcohol harm rose, the abstinence movement which is the earliest root of alcohol prevention in Latvia began in the 19th century. By then a social class of wealthy Latvians had formed. They started various abstinence movements in the country.
Vesparis provides several examples, including Augusts Dombrovskis, who fought against alcoholism as a wealthy businessman, Krišjānis Barons was an abstainer, and his son Kārlis Barons was also part of the abstinence society. Some of the abstinence societies that started includes “consciousness,” and “The Blue Cross.” Many of these societies had religious connotations.
Prevention movement during and after World War I
Latvia was part of the Russian Empire since the end of the 18th century. The Russian Empire opposed alcoholism during the time of World War I. In 1914, Tsar Nicholas the Second issued a “ukazu” or a total ban on the production and sale of vodka. The Russian Empire closed 400 state vodka plants and 28,000 alcohol stores.
Vesparis says this was when Latvia recognized the harms caused by alcohol products.
It simply came to our notice then. It is often dangerous, poisoning occurs, and so on. Shortly before World War I, for example, more than a million buckets of national vodka were sold in Vidzeme,” Mārtiņš Vesperis, chief researcher of the Research Department of the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of Medical History, as per LSM.lv.Mārtiņš Vesperis, chief researcher, Research Department, Pauls Stradiņš Museum of Medical History
Once World War I ended alcohol use and harm started rising again in Latvia. And Latvians were using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism again to deal with the harsh consequences of the war.
The Latvian Anti-Alcohol Association began in 1922, just a few years after the end afofter World War I. This was one of the most notable associations that fought against pervasive alcohol harm in Latvia, according to Laima Grīnberga, the custodian of the collection of the Numismatics Department of the Latvian National History Museum. Adult participants of the association wore small flag-shaped badges. The association had special groups for children in schools and they wore silver sun-shaped badges.
The new Latvian government formed in the 1920s decided not to continue with the complete ban on alcohol. Instead, they decided to regulate alcohol products through an Alcohol Act. This Act banned the sale of drinks with an alcohol content of more than 1.5% after ten o’clock in the evening. During the same time the Anti-Fraud Fund was established, overseen by the Ministry of the Interior and Education.
Kārlis Ulmanis, founder of the Latvian Farmers Union Party and prime minister of several Latvian governments between 1918 – 1934 captured control of the state through a blood-less coup in 1934. Alcohol use was discouraged during the authoritarian rule of Ulmanis till the year 1940 after which Latvia became a part of the Soviet Union.
Strong alcohol enters Latvia under the Soviet Union
World War II ended in 1945. The Soviet Union faced dire consequences due to the war. People were mentally devastated. But little was done by the state to support them. Most alcohol products entered Latvia after World War II. Instead of beer or wine, stronger alcohol such as vodka or kanja was starting to appear more. Alcohol began saturating society. Alcohol products began being served in almost all events from weddings to funerals and everything in-between.
The normalization, wide availability and omnipresence of alcohol in Latvia fueled pervasive alcohol harm. By the 1960s alcohol harm was of epidemic proportions. At the end of the Soviet Union, politicians Yuri Andropov and later Mikhail Gorbachev took action to reduce alcohol harm through administrative methods and policies such as liquidating production companies and restricting trade.
Astrid Stirna, a Drug Aid Service manager who started working in the field in the 1980s says people were circumventing the rules to reduce alcohol use in various methods. By the 80s involuntary treatment for alcohol problems had begun. There were departments for this type of treatment in various companies and factories. Employees would work in the morning then go for treatment after work.
Later research found that coercive mechanisms to treat alcohol problems do not work. At present, the treatment for alcohol problems in Latvia have developed to be evidence-based services.
Ms. Stirna points out that people have various reasons for having developed alcohol use problems. She further adds that political decisions, norms, different state systems, wars, and cultural habits of nations have a significant impact on the overall consumption of alcohol in a given society.
Alcohol use and potential for prevention action in Latvia today
As the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, total per capita alcohol consumption in Latvia is 12.9 liters – high above the average of the WHO European region, the heaviest alcohol-consuming region in the world. Over half (59%) of alcohol users above 15 years of age and over two-thirds (72.7%) of alcohol-using youth between 15 to 19 years engage in binge alcohol consumption.
Latvia has strong historic roots of prioritizing alcohol policy action to prevent and reduce alcohol harm and also a history of civil society action for alcohol prevention. There is an opportunity to improve alcohol policies in Latvia to better protect the Latvian people.
One alcohol policy measure that Latvia can implement is improving alcohol taxation in the country. As a Baltic nation, one of Latvia’s major concerns when implementing alcohol tax increases is cross-border trade. Movendi international has been reporting on the situation between Estonia and Latvia where the countries were competing to reduce taxes, citing cross-border trade issues. Initially, in 2019 Estonia reduced its alcohol tax by 25%. In response, Latvia decided to limit its planned 30% tax increase to only 5% in order to keep the prices of alcohol cheaper than in Estonia.
Raising alcohol excise taxes is a WHO recommended alcohol policy best buy solution which is proven effective in preventing and reducing alcohol harm cost-effectively. Latvia has the opportunity to learn from neighboring Estonia and Lithuania and collaborate with its neighbors to unlock the public health and safety benefits of alcohol policy solutions.