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Urmas Viilma: Is a human life worth just 12 cents?

Archbishop Urmas Viilma of the EELK.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma of the EELK. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

From a Christian perspective, and based on the principle of loving thy neighbor, the top priority when shaping alcohol policy should be people's lives, health and safety, not tax receipts, Archbishop Urmas Viilma, head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK), found in commentary first published in Eesti Kirik.

The planned lowering of the alcohol excise duty has stirred up the public quite a bit in recent weeks. The Riigikogu just concluded the first reading of the bill lowering excise duties. It looks as though alcohol excise duties will drop as of July 1 as well. Both the ruling coalition and, conditionally, the opposition Reform Party are in favor of this happening.

In my opinion, the matter of lowering the excise duty is being framed too much as a tax receipts issue — whether it is concern over Estonians' tax money going to Latvia or Finns not wanting to bring their money to Estonia anymore.

People are calculating millions in lost excises and even how many cents' savings we'll soon be seeing on a bottle of vodka. Beer fans will surely be happy to know that they'll be saving 12 cents per half-liter can of beer.

From a Christian perspective, and based on the principle of loving thy neighbor, the top priority when shaping alcohol policy should be people's lives, health and safety, all of which are related to alcohol consumption and buying behavior.

A few years ago, increasing the excise duty on alcohol was one of several measures that was supposed to affect people's alcohol consumption. Just like the new requirements, effective as of the beginning of the month, according to which alcohol must now be located in a separate, more sheltered part of the store, ensuring that it is no longer within tempting reach.

Don't mess with excises

In reality, we can't be sure whether drinking in border regions has increased compared with pre-excise duty hike levels. Have Estonians who have stocked up a great deal of alcohol felt pressured by these stockpiles to drink, and given into this pressure? Or, on the contrary, has the higher excise level reduced alcohol consumption and the number of related accidents, crimes and instances of domestic violence? Has this occurred despite the fact that many Estonian residents make regular trips down south to stock up?

We also don't know whether the alcohol excise going to Latvia has simultaneously increased fuel excise duty receipts, as people are using more gas. Or maybe fuel excises likewise go to Latvia, as people are filling up their tanks with cheaper gas in Latvia before driving back home.

Until we have irrefutable answers to these questions, we shouldn't be so quick to mess with excises. Especially if the main priority of these excise changes is improving tax revenues, and people themselves are of secondary importance. Otherwise that 12 cents may end up being what a human life is worth.

Drinking culture

Little has been said about drinking culture more generally. Not a single new law has banned, for example, the sale of a product absurdly known as "children's champagne" alongside juice and soft drinks. At children's birthdays and kindergarten and school graduations alike, both children and adults clink glasses together, everyone's glasses filled with fizzy drinks poured from similar bottles. It's even called the same thing — champagne! It's no wonder, then, that once they are of age, a new generation of people consider it natural that festive occasions are always accompanied by a fancy sparkling wine or cider.

Attitudes toward alcohol are instilled at home, complemented by kindergarten, school, and of course real-world experiences together with all their means of influence. For young people, some of the biggest influencers include parents, friends, the media, social media, and even lifestyle advertising normalizing alcohol consumption that is displayed at sporting events.

During a time when so much attention is being paid to creating the conditions and environment necessary to support better health, including by promoting eco-friendly products, vegan food, fitness, environmental protection and a generally healthier lifestyle, I find that there is too little support for temperance, or complete abstinence from alcohol, as a lifestyle.

Those who have made this decision should be highlighted as people who have, through their faith and willpower, and often with the support of like-minded individuals, managed to rein in their alcoholism. In that regard, Alcoholics Anonymous groups as brotherhoods of like-minded individuals deserve recognition everywhere they operate.

On that note, I would like to thank the many congregations that offer a safe space and hope for a new life to AA groups. Also deserving of recognition is the Village of Hope (Lootuse Küla), founded by fellow Christian Pentecostalists and winner of the NGO of the Year title, as well as other similar Christian rehab centers, where people who have been ensnared by alcoholism and drug addictions are helped through Christian faith to start a new life.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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