In Lithuania, people jokingly used to tell stories about how people from Finland travelled across the gulf from Helsinki to Tallinn to buy cheap booze. However as the Lithuanian government, inspired by Finland, in recent years have toughened their own alcohol laws, the anecdote now applies to themselves.
On September 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a status report on alcohol consumption in the 28 EU member states plus Norway and Switzerland, showing that Lithuanians are the heaviest drinkers in Europe and that the country also has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths.
In 2017 and 2018, a number of strict new laws were implemented in an attempt to lower the country’s alcohol consumption. The legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 20, selling hours were restricted, excise taxes were raised and a total ban on alcohol advertisement was implemented. Alcohol tourism to Poland, Latvia, Russia and Belarus is one of the direct consequences in the Baltic country since the new actions were taken.
According to Kestutis Kupsys, leader of the non-profit ‘Lietuva be Seselio’ (Lithuania without Shadow) which has tracked illegal sales of alcohol, fuel and tobacco for years, this development was predictable. A map on the website currently shows 1349 illicit alcohol trading points.
‘’Everybody knew that people would start travelling across the borders to buy alcohol and that people would start making their own alcohol. Homemade vodka now counts for about ten per cent of our consumption, and in some rural regions even 20 to 25 per cent,’’ he says.
More incentives to buy illegally
The WHO report uses data gathered from 2010 to 2016, and according to Kestutis Kupsys, the legal sale in Lithuania has gone down since then because of the new laws. But along with the increased alcohol tourism, people now also have more incentives to buy alcohol illegally.
‘’People can privately call or message dealers at night, and they will sell bottles of vodka imported from Poland. Imagine being 19 years old, having been able to drink legally for a period and then suddenly having to buy alcohol illegally. It was a joke in the youth community,’’ he says.
Softer laws not the solution
As well as being the leader of Lithuania without Shadow, Kestutis Kupsys is also the vice president of ALCO, the Alliance of Lithuanian Consumer Organizations. He stresses that the illicit alcohol market for many years was decreasing before the implementation of the new rules.
‘’We have a government that is only willing to take these drastic measures instead of a more nuanced approach, and then this predictable result happens. But the government claims that it has been a great success, because the statistics now show that the legal sale has gone down,’’ he says.
Despite his criticism of the government, Kestutis Kupsys does not recommend softening the laws again.
‘’Not at all. People are adapting and will eventually drink less. I am asking to complement the drastic measures with public education about alcohol and more initiatives to engage young people in social activities after school,’’ he says.