How did the 2018 amendment to the Alcohol Act affect alcohol sales?

In 2018, a new Alcohol Act came into force in Finland. In terms of the expected impact on alcohol consumption, the introduction of stronger beers and long drinks in grocery stores marked the most significant change. THL, among others, predicted that this would increase consumption and harm. So what can be said about the effects now that time has passed?

The recorded consumption of alcohol, i.e. official sales within Finland, remained more or less the same in 2018 as in 2017. There were slightly more imports from Estonia than before, some of which would have been purchased in Finland in 2018 without the increased sales from the “competitor”, but this has little impact on the overall picture.

What should be of most interest is the independent effect of the law rather than the change in time. The time change is the sum of the effects of all the factors affecting alcohol consumption, and to assess the independent effect of the law’s impact, this single effect should be separated from the others. Such a retrospective evaluation of the effects of policy changes is commonly done using so-called interrupted time series models.

According to the published time-series model results, the likely effect of the alcohol law was that it increased recorded consumption by around 3%. This effect was masked by the apparent opposite effect of the increase in alcohol taxation and the stocking up of alcoholic beverages in shops prior to the tax increase. There were also impacts in the other direction, notably of the beautiful weather in 2018 and the bad summer weather in 2017.

A simpler alternative to the model is to look at it graphically – Figure 1* shows how the recorded consumption of alcohol has changed by month since the beginning of 2000. The downward trend from 2007 to 2017 jumped up somewhat with the introduction of the alcohol law and then resumed its old pattern but at a slightly higher level than where it would presumably have been without the law change.

What about young people? Data from the School Health Survey show a continuous increase in youth abstinence from 2010 to 2021, except for 2017-19, when the proportion of abstainers stagnated.

Among the harms, the most pronounced change has been in mortality from alcohol-related liver disease (Figure 2**). There were 82 more of these deaths in 2019 than in 2017 – in 2020 the difference was already 153, but the coronary epidemic may also have contributed to this. Total deaths from alcohol-related diseases and alcohol poisoning were around 160 more in both 2019 and 2020 than in 2017.

A more comprehensive evaluation of the alcohol law will be carried out in autumn 2022. However, it can already be said that the alcohol law seems to have had an increasing effect on alcohol consumption, but less so than anticipated – possibly due to less price competition and marketing efforts than anticipated. In any case, it is impossible to agree with the retail sector that the change did no harm.

Smaller policy changes have a smaller impact, while larger ones have a greater impact. The retail sector is now seeking to overturn the Alko monopoly concerning alcoholic beverages below 15%, but this would probably overturn the whole monopoly.

In 2018, 3.2% of Alko’s sales were opened to competition. The new proposal would open up to 75% of Alko’s sales to competition, if we count wine (46%) and spirits that are typically diluted to the strength of wine before drinking, such as vodka or gin (30%). A geographically comprehensive chain of speciality stores with staff to serve the customer and a wide selection of products would be quite impossible, and the “miniature monopoly” of spirits only would be difficult to defend to consumers or in court. The change would be of a different order of magnitude than the 2018 change, and the expected consequences would be much more considerable.


Figure 1. shows the recorded consumption of alcohol by month, after removing the seasonal variation in consumption, from 01/2000 to 08/2021. The moment of the law change (1.1.2018) is marked with a vertical line.

Figure 2. shows total alcohol consumption in litres of 100% alcohol per capita aged 15 and over and the number of assaults and alcohol-related deaths from the liver disease per 100 000 population between 1969 and 2020.