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Tanel Kiik: Alcohol lobby must not be allowed to dictate legislation

Tanel Kiik.
Tanel Kiik. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The national alcohol policy needs to be based on public health and broader social considerations as opposed to the business interests of alcohol producers or advertising agencies, politician Tanel Kiik writes.

Excessive alcohol consumption has been a major problem and among the chief public health hazards in Estonia for decades. Curbing alcohol damages has been phrased as a goal that transcends political parties, while excessive alcohol use has actually been getting worse in recent years, in step with health damage and negative effects on the labor market and the economy.

Data from the Estonian Institute of Health Development suggests 753 mostly working-age people died of alcohol-related conditions in 2022. We can add to that number around 100 people who drowned or died as a result of hypothermia, fire and car crashes while under the influence of alcohol. Wider health damage is far more extensive still.

The Estonian Institute of Economic Research's data suggests that people in Estonia consumed 11.2 liters of pure alcohol per resident (15+) in 2022, which equals 56 bottles of vodka or ca 450 mid-strength beers.

This growing trend is worrying to say the least, and it is high time to revise Estonia's national alcohol policy. I consider it very important we do not limit the debate to excise duty revenue or making minor adjustments to the duty rate as they are but a small part of the equation.

The consumption of intoxicating substances will never be a net positive phenomenon for countries as the damage done will always outweigh tax revenue. That is why it is important for us to also treat with the number of establishments selling alcohol, the availability of alcoholic beverages among minors and the negative effects of alcohol advertising.

The green book of alcohol policy pointed out a decade ago that alcohol advertising increases the likelihood of young people starting to consume alcohol or consuming more of it. Econometric studies were referenced, according to which advertising volume growing by 10 percent translates into a 0.3 percent increase in consumption.

Based on international experience, experts proposed various ways of limiting alcohol advertising a considerable part of which has been put into practice since. But regulating alcohol marketing requires taking into account various forms and channels and constantly updating the rules to keep up with the rapid development of (social) media. We need to admit that we haven't always been successful in this.

Considering the negative effect of alcohol ads and growing consumption, discussing whether to alleviate current restrictions and to what extent is wholly inappropriate. But reading about the initial thoughts and proposals of a Ministry of Economic Affairs representative and a recent opinion piece by a member of the alcohol advertising working group ridiculing health experts, the intent seems to be just that.

Instead of thinking about how to reduce alcohol-related damages, healthcare nonprofits are slammed for infecting others with "idea pathogens" and for their "rational thinking being paralyzed and substituted by confusing emotions." Excuse me?

I wrote a letter to the minister of economic affairs, the health minister and members of the Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee back on September 26, suggesting that the makeup of the alcohol advertising working group was clearly one-sided, which is why progress was being made in the wrong direction. My recommendation was to stop the process in its tracks. Consequent conversations with healthcare representatives, the health minister and members of the parliamentary committee confirmed I am not the only one who is concerned.

While amending the Advertising Act and alcohol advertising restrictions can be discussed, the aim of potential changes needs to be agreed on first. I believe it can only be to limit alcohol advertising and its effect on young people to minimize health damage caused by alcohol.

But arguments of public health will inevitably be forced to take a back seat if the working group is dominated by business interests. For example, if it turns out that we cannot always enforce current alcohol advertising restrictions, we need to think of ways to have more effective rules and supervision instead of considering dropping them altogether. Based on this logic, we might as well do away with speed limits on motorways because not everyone always sticks to them.

My recommendation for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Research is to dissolve the current working group and start from scratch, involving healthcare and social experts to a far greater degree. The national alcohol policy needs to be based on public health and broader social considerations as opposed to the business interests of alcohol producers or advertising agencies. We have no hope of ending up in the right place if we start out in the wrong direction.

It is furthermore curious that while the coalition agreement prescribes, in no uncertain terms, banning gambling, online sports betting and fast loans advertising, the ministry's working group has no plan to even discuss this topic. This begs the questions of who decided to alter the coalition agreement and with what authorization?

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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