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Ministry: Time-of-day restrictions on alcohol ads not effective enough

An advertisement for alcohol-free rum.
An advertisement for alcohol-free rum. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is reviewing the regulations on alcohol advertising. Among the ideas being discussed are the possible removal of rules regarding times of day alcohol ads can appear on TV and radio, as well as potentially extending regulations to also cover non-alcoholic drinks, which look similar to those containing alcohol.

At the end of January, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications hopes to present a draft amendment to the Advertising Act. Merike Koppel, the ministry's head of business environment, said the range of topics to be discussed is quite broad, including the question of how to define advertising in the first place.

Koppel pointed out that the Advertising Act is 15 years old. A the time it was introduced, nobody knew how best to apply the regulations to advertising on social media or streaming platforms, she said.

The section on alcohol advertising last changed in 2018. For several months now, representatives of public authorities and a number of different interest groups have been discussing ways to rewrite these paragraphs in the amended text.

Ahead of the December meeting, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications sent a document to the parties concerned, in which it identified a number of problems that needed to be solved. One of the issues identified related to current restrictions the fact that alcohol advertisements are not permitted on television or radio between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., the purpose being to protect minors in particular.

"In today's world, where watching TV in a linear fashion is no longer on the agenda, and where TV is watched on catch-up, it is questionable whether a restriction like this would work," Koppel explained.

Ministry does not want to relax restrictions

Koppel acknowledged that there are no ready-made solutions for how to tackle the problem but that they may emerge from further discussions. One possibility would be to extend the time limit across all platforms. However, the ministry said that such a rule would only affect Estonia businesses, and would therefore put them at a disadvantage compared to similar companies in other countries.

Simply abolishing the time restrictions would not bring the law closer to achieving its overall goal. For this reason, the ministry is also considering channel-neutral restrictions, with the main aim being that alcohol must not be advertised to minors. Again however, this is much more difficult to legislate for. There have also been some suggestions of potentially attributing more responsibility on the advertiser.

"Maybe with some specific sections we will get to the point where we really don't need to change the law. But we at least have to put it out there for public discussion so that all affected parties can have their say," Koppel said. Koppel added that some discussions have already taken place and more are still to come, and stressed that the ministry does not want to relax the restrictions on alcohol advertising.

"We will instead review which restrictions are necessary today and which are not," Koppel said.

Alcohol advertising, and advertising that appears to be alcohol advertising

In recent years, the question has arisen as to whether the restrictions only apply to specific products or if alcohol advertising is restricted more generally. What should be done about companies that offer wine training or bar credit as prizes for instance? And is advertising alcohol in a liquor store considered to be alcohol advertising?

It was only this Wednesday, that ERR reported how a non-alcoholic version of Captain Morgan rum is being advertised at Tallinn bus stops.

"If the non-alcoholic product being advertised is very similar to alcohol, should we change the definition of alcohol in the law?" said Koppel. "So, that we would have 'alcohol advertising' and 'advertising that looks like alcohol advertising.'"

The ministry has not yet made decisions on those issues either, Koppel said. However, in a letter sent to the parties concerned, it did state that advertising with a similar effect ought to be treated in the same way.

Alcohol producers push for healthy and informed consumption

The ministry added that the use of non-alcoholic products to advertise products containing alcohol has also been highlighted as a problem by some smaller businesses. They say that loopholes in the law are being exploited by those who can afford to produce non-alcoholic drinks that look similar to their other products, which do contain alcohol.

Kadri Maasik, head of the Estonian Association of Alcohol Producers and Importers (ATML), stressed that the rules should not limit the general move towards healthier and more informed choices for consumers.

"What's wrong with being able to steer consumers towards alcohol-free choices?" asked Maasik.

Alcohol producers say consumer health and awareness are already being impacted by the current rules. While the law previously included a list of items that could not be shown in alcohol advertising, that was changed in 2018.

Now there is instead a ten-point list of the things that can be included. This means only the name of the producer and the product, the type, brand, origin, alcohol content, shape of the bottle, color, aroma, taste and serving suggestion are allowed to be shown in advertisements.

Clear list would make monitoring easier

In their dealings with the ministry, alcohol advertising producers and commissioners have pointed out that the current restrictions do not allow cocktail recommendations to be made. For example, to by saying that gin goes well with tonic rather than being drunk neat.

In the drafting process, the ministry is discussing whether such lists might be abandoned altogether or simply supplemented with some new elements. During the consultations, the Estonian Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) said that a clear list would make monitoring easier.

According to Merike Koppel the TTJA's input will be very important when amending the Advertising Act. "After all, they see the real problems day in, day out. And if you consider that they have 400 consultations a year just about the interpretation of the Advertising Act, then that's a really large amount," said Koppel.

No ban on gambling ads proposed

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications presenting a draft amendment to the Advertising Act at the end of January is also mentioned in the government's action program.

That deadline is linked to a point in the coalition agreement concerning the ban of advertising for gambling, online betting and fast loans.

Merike Koppel said that, despite the expectations set out in the action program, the ministry is not planning to include a ban on gambling advertising in the draft proposal.

"We will make a draft proposal based on the input from specialists, market participants and supervisory authorities and the possible solutions, proposals and concerns they see in the actual implementation of the law," Koppel said.

"I dare say that gambling advertising today is regulated sufficiently," said Koppel, adding that, in her view the bigger issue is related to supervision. "Whether it is effective enough and whether gambling operators have been sufficiently law-abiding when commissioning advertising."

Koppel pointed out that although that specific point from the coalition agreement will not make it into the ministry's proposal on this occasion, members of the government or Riigikogu may move to include it in the same bill at a later time.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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