The Parliament in Latvia is set to debate how to reduce alcohol use and harm in the country. After a long break, the Saeima will discuss alcohol policy improvements in the end of October.
For instance, the parliament is set to review how to implement an alcohol tax increase, an alcohol age limit increase, how to better protect people in Latvia from alcohol ads, sponsorships, and promotions.
The country faces a severe alcohol burden and urgent and ambitious action is needed to protect more people from alcohol harm. But law makers are up against a powerful industry lobby pursuing their profit interests.

The rate of alcohol consumption and harm in Latvia is a source of considerable concern and significantly exceeds international averages. Latvia is a high-consumption country and a country with a high alcohol burden. This poses substantial challenges for both public health and the country’s economy.

But the Latvian government and parliament are now making alcohol policy the priority it should be. For instance, the parliament is set to review how to implement an alcohol tax increase, an alcohol age limit increase, how to better protect people in Latvia from alcohol ads, sponsorships, and promotions. Another example is the effort by the government to raise alcohol taxes.

Latvia is set to raise alcohol and tobacco excise duties

Latvia plans to gradually phase in alcohol and tobacco excise tax increases over the course of three years.

The Health Ministry’s stance is that excise tax on all alcoholic beverages should increase by at least 15% per annum and the excise duty on tobacco products should rise by at least 10% annually. This is in line with the recommendations given to the Baltic states by the World Health Organization, according to ERR reporting.

Finance Minister Ašeradens says that the excise duty changes will be presented to the Saeima, the Latvian Parliament.

The government approved the finance ministry proposal increase the alcohol excise duty rate by up to 10% per year for three years from March 1, 2024.

The excise duty on tobacco products would increase by 5 to 6 percent per year also, under the new scheme.

Alcohol excise tax increase
The government approved the finance ministry proposal increase the alcohol excise duty rate by up to 10% per year for three years from March 1, 2024.

Minister of Health of Latvia Hosans Abu Meri suggested at a cabinet session that the alcohol excise duty could be increased further, in order to both curb population-level alcohol use and related harm and to obtain additional funds for the health sector.

Annual alcohol tax increases planned

Recently, the Cabinet reviewed amendments to the Excise Tax Law which foresee steadily raising excise tax rates on alcoholic and tobacco products – including vaping – from 2024 to 2026.

The draft law envisages an annual increase of the excise tax for the group of alcoholic beverages classed as “other alcoholic beverages” – which includes strong spirits such as vodka and whisky – by 5% over the next three years.

Annual increase of excise tax for high-strength alcohol
The government plans an annual increase of the excise tax for high-strength alcoholic beverages by 5% over the next three years.

For other groups of alcoholic beverages (beer, wines, fermented beverages and intermediate products) excise tax will be increased annually by an average of 10% over the next three years. Excise tax rates for alcoholic beverages will be increased on March 1 each year for the next three years, so the end of February could well see an annual rush to stock up from drinkers.

The measures are included in the package of accompanying bills of the bill “On the state budget for 2024 and the budget framework for 2024, 2025 and 2026”, which enters into force on January 1, 2024, subject to Saeima approval of the budget.

Alcohol law reforms on the agenda of the Parliament

In addition to the alcohol tax increase, the Saeima will consider a comprehensive set of proposals to reform and improve Latvia’s alcohol law. After a long break, the Saeima will discuss the country’s alcohol burden and how to best use alcohol policy to improve health, wellbeing and economy.

Saeima deputies will soon have the chance to decide more effective alcohol policy solutions to reduce the alcohol burden in Latvia.

On October 25, the Saeima Social and Labor Affairs Committee is scheduled to conduct a comprehensive review of proposed amendments to the Law on alcohol circulation during the second reading. More than 40 distinct proposals have been submitted for consideration.

Improving Latvia alcohol policy
More than 40 distinct alcohol policy proposals have been submitted for consideration by the Saeima.

Andris Berzins of the Union of Greens and Farmers and Chairman of the responsible Saeima Committee, said about the proposals, as per LSM reporting:

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.”

Andris Berzins, MP, Union of Greens and Farmers, Chairman Saeima Social and Labor Affairs Committee

According to LSM reporting, the alcohol industry in Latvia is opposing almost all alcohol policy improvements. Alcohol companies like the current situation of high alcohol consumption and harm, few standards for how they should sell and market their products, and huge profit margins.

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.”

Dāvis Vītols, alcohol industry lobbyist

LSM also reports that Big Alcohol lobbyists claim they could discuss an increase in the age limit for alcohol purchase and consumption. But all other proposals will receive aggressive opposition from the alcohol industry.

Latvia’s alcohol burden and the need for action

Alcohol consumption in Latvia is at worrying levels and by international standards, very high. In 2020, Latvia had the highest population-level alcohol consumption among the OECD countries – 12.1 liters per inhabitant, excluding the consumption of tourists.

In 2021, per capita alcohol continued to increase, reaching 12.2 liters.

Movendi International has been reporting on the alcohol harm and policy situation in Latvia with nearly 30 articles in recent years.

The picture that emerges is clear:

57 Million
Healthcare costs for issues directly caused by alcohol
In 2021 alcohol harm caused healthcare costs of €56.6 million for the direct treatment of alcohol-caused issues.

No significant alcohol policy improvements in 20 years

Latvia has not implement any significant alcohol policy improvement in the areas of availability, marketing, and pricing for the past 20 years. This is how long Latvia has been a member of the European Union.

While the alcohol excise tax has been raised sporadically, it has not been significant enough for improvements in public health.

Uldis Mitenbergs, Head of Mission of the World Health Organization in Latvia, explains the potential of alcohol policy to protect Latvians, as per LSM:

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.

Uldis Mitenbergs, Head of Mission, World Health Organization in Latvia

Laura Isajeva, a researcher at the Institute of Public Health at the Stradiņš University also offers further reassurance that these policy proposals are effective in improving public health.

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.”

Laura Isajeva, Institute of Public Health at the Stradiņš University

Planned alcohol policy improvements for alcohol marketing

The proliferation of alcohol advertising in Latvia is part of the problem driving alcohol use and the immense harm.

Under current laws, Latvia allows the advertisement of beer and wine. Latvia also allows the advertisement of alcohol in magazines and newspapers, albeit not on the external pages and covers and through telemarketing. However, alcohol advertising is not allowed on the radio and TV. Advertising in environmental advertisements such as stalls, signs, and screens is also not allowed.

There are also other limits to alcohol marketing in Latvia. Marketing messaging cannot imply that alcohol can have incentivising or calming effects. It also cannot portray people consuming alcohol or imply that it can solve personal problems.

And now the country is considering how to better protect people in Latvia from alcohol ads, sponsorships, and promotions.

The Ministry of Health once had a commitment to banning alcohol advertising on the internet. But latest policy improvements being considered no longer comprise this commitment.

Currently, the government and parliament consider how to ban alcohol price and discount promotions. The ban would apply to press and other printed advertising and consumer publications. This would mean that discounts were no longer allowed to be advertised on shop campaign leaflets. The improved alcohol marketing standards would also apply to cinemas, websites, ads online, and apps.

The new policy would also prohibit advertising prices or discounts of alcoholic beverages through postal and e-mail services. It would also be restricted in places outside alcohol retail locations. These amendments to existing policies would prohibit different strategies that promote alcohol consumption. Marketing strategies could also no longer incentivise the purchase of more alcohol. The Director of the Department of Public Health, Jana Feldmane explains how this would work, as per LSM reporting.

That means there’s a share right now, for example – one bottle of alcohol costs this much, but buying three bottles, for example, it would cost less. This motivates a person to buy four instead of one bottle.

Or, for example, if you buy one bottle of alcohol, another bottle of alcohol is offered as a gift. Similarly, for example, there are different shares for annuals or loyalty card holders who are offered to buy alcohol at a discount. This type of promotion, which encourages more purchases, is intended to be banned by these amendments.”

Jana Feldmane, Director, Department of Public Health, Ministry of Health

Big Alcohol opposes higher standards for how they should and should not market their products

The alcohol industry, in this represented by the Latvian Advertising Association, lobbies against all of the proposals to protect more Latvians from alcohol marketing.

According to Baiba Liepina of the Latvian Advertising Association, the planned policies are inadequate.

“If the amendments remain that alcohol price and discount advertising is banned across all channels, across all media but remain in stores, then in our view the target the Ministry of Health wants to achieve, a reduction in consumption, will not be achieved as advertising will simply move to an exclusive single channel that is stores.

Today we have not only physical shops, but also e-shops, and there is not much difference – it is a digital environment that is very convenient and close to the consumer.” 

Baiba Liepiņa, lobbyist for the Latvian Advertising Association

The alcohol industry lobbyists are claiming they would ignore new rules and standards.

The digital world already is the second biggest channel for alcohol advertising globally, according to Statista 2020.

But the global overview clearly shows that the proposals tabled to the Parliament would make a huge difference in protecting more people from alcohol marketing.

Alcohol ad spend worldwide in 2020, by medium 

The internet is a gateway which is often used by the alcohol industry to prey especially on the youth and on minors.

Astrīda Stirna, Head of the Drug Assistance Service of the Riga Center for Psychiatry and Narcology confirms that banning alcohol advertising is important to protect people from alcohol.

Advertising restrictions are one of the most effective moves to curb alcohol consumption.

And various marketing tricks – buy one, get the other cheaper – or other campaigns… of course it’s effective and for a very wide audience, not just young people, because marketing is aimed at encouraging trade.”

Astrīda Stirna, Head of the Drug Assistance Service, Riga Center for Psychiatry and Narcology and Head of the Association of Narcologists

Sources “Saeima to consider ways to cut alcohol consumption in Latvia

ERR: “Latvian Radio outlines planned alcohol marketing limitations

ERR: “Latvia takes plunge on raising its alcohol and tobacco excise duties

For Further Reading