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Lithuania set to clamp down on alcohol sales, booze buyers’ habits

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Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

The news from the World Health Organisation (WHO) could not have come worse to all the opponents of the ruling Peasants and Greens Party’s sweeping plans to enforce a lot tougher alcohol consumption regulation in the country.

Lithuanians consume the most alcohol in the world, according to 2016 data presented by Gauden Galea, director of the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Life-course at WHO/Europe, in Vilnius on Tuesday, May 16.

Lithuania on top of WHO stats

According to him, Lithuania’s alcohol consumption last year reached 16 litres per capita.

«The newest calculations put Lithuania on top (in alcohol consumption) in Europe and moreover: at the level, it is a top drinker in the world,» the WHO representative told local reporters.

Over the last couple of weeks, Lithuania has been on edge with the tougher booze law supporters squabbling with the liberal-minded – in the realm of the internet, at Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) and on the streets.

The heated deliberations have little mitigated the law amenders’ moxie to clamp down on alcohol consumption in the country in the forms booze is available until now.

The compilation of the latest law draft, released by Seimas’ Health Committee on Wednesday, May 17, envisions ban on alcoholic beverage sale, among other spots, in temporary outdoor summer pavilions, beach patios. Initially, the ban was proposed to go into force right after the vote later this month, but, with a huge backlash from the industry and café owners on the Baltic coast, the legislators have backtracked a little, putting off enactment of the amendment until 2020.

Stringent new law provisions

The latest draft envisions toughened procedures in obtaining alcohol sale licenses – most of the time, local municipalities would be liable for the issuance. Firms applying for fixed-term alcohol licenses would be subject to especially strict scrutiny and, even granted such license, they would be barred from selling beverages containing more than 7.5 per cent of alcohol. Importantly, all booze sellers under the altered law will be stripped of right of selling alcohol in free events and gatherings.

In other words, if you enjoyed the frenzy of, say, Sea Festival in Klaipėda, the Lithuanian seaport, and the beer it was offering from the make-shift vendor stalls right in the city’s key public squares, now just forget it – the Peasants and Greens want to wipe out any alcohol sales from such type of festivals.

Meanwhile, in pay-fee events, licenses to sell alcoholic drinks will be issued only for their duration.

The parliamentary Health Committee has approved the legislative provision envisioning that alcoholic beverages are sold in supermarkets and shops only from 10 am until 8 pm (now the hours are from 8 am to 10 pm). On Sundays, alcohol would be available only from 10 am until 3 pm. Again – if the propositions make their way to the letter of law.

The Committee also wants to increase the age limit to purchase alcohol from 18 to 20 years.

Already starting next year, any alcohol advertising will be banned, according the draft law. A few exemptions are foreseen in it, however.

Yet even with them, alcohol advertisements on local TV stations should be swept out, experts say. Until now, this kind of advertising was allowed from 11 pm until 6 am. Some of the administrative penalties for Alcohol law infringements are to be toughened, too.

The Lithuanian Parliamentarians are expected to vote on the Health Committee’s draft on May 23.

Specialised booze shops in horizon

However, some changes – perhaps to a tougher variant of law – are possible, with Ramūnas Karbauskis, the leader of the ruling Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, calling on the government to draft legal acts by mid-2018 that would pave way for specialized alcohol stores in the country.

Karbauskis has registered a relevant draft resolution, suggesting that the Cabinet should prepare bills by July 1 of 2017 for opening of specialized alcohol stores and specify procedures for such alcohol trade licenses.

In his words, the proposal comes in light of the fact that the amendments to the Alcohol Control Law currently discussed in parliament and other legal acts only cover the first phase of the reduction of damages caused to the society by alcohol consumption.

Last December, Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga said that specialized alcohol stores could open in 2018, with the number of such stores established by the population numbers.

During the campaign before the 2016 elections, LFGU pledged to introduce a state monopoly on alcohol trade, however, later gave up the proposal.

Opposition wants to scarp irrational proposals

Meanwhile, the opposition Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats proposes that the parliament temporarily suspend debates on a controversial package aimed at sharply reducing access to alcohol until political groups in the Seimas reach consensus and muster enough votes to pass the legislation.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, May 16, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the conservative party’s leader, called for debates on the draft amendments to the Law on Alcohol Control to be put on hold and for irrational proposals to be scrapped.

«The draft amendments presented by the (parliament’s) Committee on Health Affairs and the government are disappointing and surprising. Amendments to the law must be based on a clear logic as to what is to be achieved: to reduce alcohol availability, eliminate alcohol advertising and reduce alcohol affordability,» Landsbergis said.«Availability will only be reduced by shortening alcohol sale hours; other measures, such as a ban on selling alcohol in outdoor cafes or during mass events, are just a misunderstanding that will bring no real benefit and will target the wrong group of society,» he added.

A pan-Baltic effort

The amendments to the Law on Alcohol, currently under debate in the Seimas, have provoked a public outcry. Festival organizers and musicians staged a concert outside the parliament building in Vilnius on Tuesday, May 16, to protest against the ruling coalition’s plans to restrict alcohol sales during free public events. Companies say that the proposed ban on selling alcohol in outdoor cafes will ruin their business.

Yet it seems, however, that the resolve to curb alcohol consumption has spread beyond the Lithuanian border – Latvia and Estonia have said they also mull similar Alcohol law amendments.

On May 16, the Baltic health ministries at a meeting in Vilnius agreed on common plans for developing alcohol, tobacco and healthy eating policies.

The memorandum of understanding on the issues is expected to be signed on June 16, when the health ministers of the Baltic countries will meet within the framework of the meeting of the European Union Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council.

Excise tax hike did not work

But Swedbank Lithuania’s chief economist Nerijus Mačiulis claims amid the outcry that a major increase in excise duties on alcoholic drinks that took effect in Lithuania in early March has had no major impact on the country’s alcohol market.

«Fears that the excise tax hike will lead to a decrease in consumption proved to be unfounded. On the other hand, this means that the shadow economy did not increase, which was in line with expectations,» he said.

Based on figures from the State Tax Inspectorate, the total amount of declared alcohol excise duties for the first four months of this year soared by 45.9 percent year-on-year to 110.569 million euros. Some 75.279 million euros, or 68.1 percent of the total amount, was declared in February.

According to Mačiulis, the increase in wholesale alcohol sales indicates that demand for alcoholic drinks among retail consumers did not decline.

«Affordability has risen sharply over the past ten years. So, even after the excise duty hike, this did not become a problem. Higher sales for the four months signal that consumption is not falling, even given that Lithuania’s population shrank by 30,000 over the year,» the economist said.

How do the prudes behave in foreign resorts?

Speaking to BNN, Evalda Šiškauskienė, president of Lithuania’s Hotels and Restaurant Association, said that, with the new law provisions in force, around 45 seasonal outdoor cafes will be forced out of business.

«The situation in that regard will be even worse on the Lithuanian seaside, where this type of facilities are bread and butter for many local businessmen. In fact, the seaside is the «culprit» – namely it has prompted all the parliamentary discussions and, later on, prohibitions on outdoor alcohol sales,» she said.

Meanwhile, Artūras Timukas, owner of Devintam danguje restaurant in the Baltic resort of Palanga, did not conceal his disappointment with the MPs’ legislative propositions when talking to BNN.

«I run two beach pavilions in summer. The new Alcohol law restrictions will severely affect not only them, but also another four business spots I manage in Palanga. For me, it is very weird to listen to the approach by our lawmakers – I mean that no one can sip beer on the beach. I really would like to know whether all the prudes who stand for the amendments crippling my and many others’ businesses here drink only soft drinks on vacation in foreign resorts? And do they get involved in sports and other activities there?» Timukas asked rhetorically. He added: «I don’t think that bans can change anything. Already now I often see people on their way to the beach carrying large plastic bags full of alcoholic beverages. Who will tackle them? The army of this type of holiday makers will just increase.»

Ref: 020/111.111.111.4591


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