Exercising political will: new alcohol control measures in Lithuania

Nijole Gostautaite Midttun describes the controversy surrounding the new alcohol law

On 9 June 2017, President Dalia Grybauskaitė signed new alcohol control measures that raise the minimum drinking age, restrict alcohol sale hours and ban alcohol advertising, as adopted by the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania on 1 June 2017. This signature marks the last legal hurdle for the Law to come into effect on 1 January 2018.

The measures follow the WHO “Best buys” and sets up the most comprehensive alcohol advertising ban in the Baltic countries and most of the EU. Instead of an earlier version restricting types, placements and times of advertising, the new wording of the Law simply states that “Alcohol advertising in the Republic of Lithuania is prohibited”. The Law lists exemptions that would not be considered advertising: brand names and logos at alcohol sales points, on equipment and supplies, company cars, etc., information for specialists, some packaging characteristics, as well as the accidental presentation of images during sports games and other events. The Law also stipulates the enforcement of the Law in media, electronic environments, public spaces, etc., while the Department for Drugs, Tobacco and Alcohol Control will be responsible for the implementation of the ban, with powers to issue a mandatory decree for immediate removal of any advertising material, by way of a court order. In addition, from 2018, the minimum allowed legal drinking age will increase from 18 to 20, while alcohol selling hours will be limited from 10am to 8pm from Monday to Saturday and from 10am to 3pm on Sundays. As of 2020, non-stationary alcohol sales outlets will no longer be allowed.

However the public health NGOs, hopeful as they are, are weary and cautiously await the Law coming to effect next year. We still remember the events of 2011, when an alcohol advertising ban was revoked just before coming into effect, or turbulent attempt in 2015 to revoke a ban on alcohol sales in petrol stations. The industry backed groups have been massively active during the process of discussions and adoption of the amendments and the high level of media involvement seem to continue even after adoption process is over.

It is important to note that the opposition against the measures was both vocal and clandestine – it involved a massive media information campaign involving celebrities and health professionals announcing their resistance towards the amendment, promotion of industry sponsored research and surveys in the public sphere, accusations of fake alcohol consumption statistics and the slander of Lithuania’s name and reputation, but also much quieter political negotiations, secret meetings with industry, rumored deals with media, production of competing legislative proposals.

There are continued attempts to refocus public and political discussion towards personal responsibility and freedom, as well as treatment of persons with alcohol dependence (who should solely be the target of alcohol control measures). During the process of adoption a free concert-party was professionally organized next to Parliament by PR companies linked with the alcohol industry, acquiring a tag of spontaneous “Free Rock’n’Roll” campaign. The mainstream media blatantly ignored most of the endorsements by public health, youth and health specialists’ organizations, state institutions and individuals who supported the measures. Politicians in favor of the restrictions faced a barrage of abuse and personal attacks on social media – most notably the healthcare minister – from pubs and other outlets using memes, including a famous piece of graffiti art featuring the head of the ruling party, the head of the Parliament health committee and the healthcare minister.

However, despite enormous pressure, the majority of MPs eventually supported the amendments – 101 out of 141 MPs voted in for the amendments, including vocal adversaries of the proposals, with only 10 against and 10 MPs abstaining. This does indicate strengthening of political will to tackle alcohol related harm in the new Parliament, which crosses current coalition boundaries. The earlier endorsements by the Government and now by the President indicate that the consensus regarding the need to reduce alcohol consumption is wider than agreement about specific alcohol control measures. Not all of the initial proposals were adopted in the final version of the amendments package; some disappointment was vocalized for delaying more stringent access restrictions.

Passing the law required intense NGO involvement: presence in the committees, mobilizing local and international networks, discussions, coordination with state representatives and responsiveness in social media, as well as presence during actual voting.

The focus and support from the international community has been an important resource providing resilience to the political will when it was most needed in keeping the legal process moving forward. It provided facts, international experience, and infused credibility to the local political effort. In future, the united efforts of the international community in supporting evidence-based WHO “Best Buys” could also help transform alcohol consumption not only in Lithuania, but also the rest of the Baltic region, an area with a population that experiences the highest levels of alcohol-related harm in Europe. Overall, this would raise the prospect of more attainable and sustainable public health improvements in Lithuania.

Written by Nijole Gostautaite Midttun, Lithuanian Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition

Photo taken from HERE