26 November 2012
A dramatic and surprising story broke out in Lithuanian media this autumn about a MP of the now expired parliament. Mr. V. Matuzas allegedly received a 16 thousand euro bribe for introducing amendments to several laws, including the Alcohol Control Law. The surprise is not the alleged bribe, since Lithuania ranks No. 50 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (2011). The real surprise is that a suspected mediator of the bribe, lobbyist A. Romanovskis, was actually jailed for two weeks after a court order and criminal investigation was opened against MP Matuzas. This is an unusually harsh legal response, to a quite usual activity – profit seeking industries using legal and illegal methods to manufacture conditions most favourable for their profits. Not many things surprise us, since in Lithuania we have been toughened by some hair rising practices (media industry leaking personal contacts of MPs promoting alcohol control and inciting to violence against them, the famous blackmail against Lithuanian government by Norwegian Oil giant “Statoil” regarding alcohol retail at night, etc.).
Legal lobbyist A. Romanovskis, who is no stranger in working with the alcohol and tobacco industry, has paid the alleged bribe in smaller instalments to the Charity and Relief Fund, which according to Lithuanian media, is controlled by Matuzas. The acknowledged original author of the amendments to the Alcohol Control Law according to the media was an association called Investor’s Forum, whose many members are foreign owned companies, including tobacco producer Philip Morris Baltic. And allegedly in exchange for “charity” Matuzas has proposed and voted in favour of the amendments, effectively revoking a ban on alcohol advertising which should have come into effect on January 1st 2012. It’s important to note, that this measure was introduced in the end of 2007 as “a compromise in a pressure suit” suggested by the alcohol industry – as yet another effort to postpone restrictions for alcohol advertisements on TV.
And here is the situation: the legal battle is just beginning to sizzle, suspects are still “presumed innocent”, yet the industry is already enjoying the fruits of the investment – they have avoided a drop in consumption which should have been expected from previous experience. When in 2007 restrictions on alcohol advertisement on TV were introduced it soon translated into positive public health outcomes – among others very importantly – a significant drop in alcohol intoxications in children aged 7-14. The number of alcohol intoxicated children was increasing fast up to 2007, when it reached the peak of 105,2 cases per 100 thousand population and then suddenly reversed and dropped to 67,9 in 2010.
The amendments to this and several other Laws that have been passed under suspicious circumstances are still operational. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Ethics and Procedure Commission A. Salamakinas has commented that “The Seimas Statute does not provide a rule on what to do in cases, when it turns out that a bribe was paid for bills that were signed into laws. We haven’t had such precedent, so there is no accepted practice what to do in similar cases.” This occurs to us as quite convenient and justifies the conclusion: crime pays. Legal battles against corrupt officials backed by the industry might take years and there are no clear procedures on how to revoke fabricated amendments.
It is obvious that an industry that is capable and willing to exert such pressure on legal and democratic structures in any country should not be part of the policy decision making processes regarding their products. Lithuanian experience with this and other cases of industries influencing elected officials at the expense of public health outcomes provides yet another piece of evidence for stripping ALL for profit industry (media, tourism, food and retail, agriculture you name it) from stakeholder’s position in developing alcohol and tobacco control policies.
Small and relatively weak EU countries are in clear and present danger to become cheap test arenas – a cost effective way for the industry to assess the strength of the legal and democratic system. Newly gained experience and skills can be easily refined and used in more expensive countries. The industry is very skilled in using newly gained experience multiple times in similar situations internationally. This kind of outsourcing seems to be very dangerous for democracy. In this globally connected world, the shared experience of NGOs might help make this kind of behaviour become less profitable. Because the European Union cannot afford a flourishing, creative and influential alcohol and tobacco lobby.
Nijole G. Midttun is board member of the National Coalition for Tobacco and Alcohol Control
Vaida Liutkute, is PhD student in Public Health and member of National Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition
Aurelijus Veryga, is President of Lithuanian National Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition and Baltic Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition
Learn more about the National Tobaco and Alcohol Control Coalition>>