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Rapid wage growth has boosted alcohol consumption in Estonia

Alcohol on sale.
Alcohol on sale. Source: Priit Luts/ERR

Alcohol consumption in Estonia has increased in recent years. The Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs attributes this to the fact that wages have risen at a faster rate than alcohol prices.

Alcohol consumption in Estonia had been declining for a number of years prior to 2018, said Brigitta Õunmaa, an adviser at the Ministry of Social Affairs' public health department. However, since 2019, alcohol consumption has been on the rise again, and along with it, unfortunately, so has the number of deaths directly caused by alcohol.

"Last year there were 753 of them. In 2017 there were almost half as many. The increase in deaths has actually been much steeper than the increase in total consumption," said Õunmaa.

One of the reasons is that the price of alcohol has not risen at the same rate as other prices or salaries, said Estonian Minister of Health Riina Sikkut (SDE).

"Ten years ago you could buy 60 bottles of vodka for a month's salary, now you can buy 90," she said.

This is why it has been agreed in Estonia's state budget strategy that alcohol excise duty will increase by five percent every year over the coming years, Sikkut explained. However, this is a modest rise, she added.

"It does not ensure that we will get back to the situation we were in ten years ago, but it prevents alcohol from becoming cheaper and cheaper as the cost of living rises and more liters can be bought with a monthly salary."

Neighboring Latvia also recently decided to raise alcohol excise duty, increasing it by eight percent on hard alcoholic drinks and up to 20 percent on those with lower alcohol content. In Finland, too, the price per liter of a number of alcoholic beverages is already almost twice as expensive as in Estonia.

Alcohol excise duty can be discussed again at the end of next summer, when the new state budget will be debated, Sikkut said.

"Past experience tells us that abrupt changes are not something that would be accepted by society or can be made without any repercussions. I think that a mild annual increase in alcohol excise duties is the most sensible approach," Sikkut explained.

Next year, the Ministry of Social Affairs plans to improve the effectiveness of its monitoring processes regarding alcohol sales.. At present, minors can often still buy alcohol because stores do not ask them to produce identification proving their age. Alcohol is also often sold to people who are already drunk, even though the law prohibits it, Sikkut said. The cost is only one factor to be considered in relation to the availability of alcohol, she added.

"What has increased in terms of physical availability, especially in recent years, has been the distance [involved in] selling alcohol. In fact, nowadays we don't even need a physical store at all to get alcohol. In most parts of Estonia, it is delivered by couriers to your door," Õunmaa said.

The ministry is also planning a broader review of Estonia's alcohol policy. Among the issues that could be up for consideration is whether or not gas stations should sell alcohol, or how far apart stores selling alcohol should be from one another.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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