Lithuania is a country with a serious alcohol problem. This is particularly apparent from the consumption figures: according to the World Health Organization, a shocking average of 15.2 liters of pure alcohol per person per year was consumed in Lithuania in 2016 . At the same time, the average quantity globally stands at 6.4 liters. It is therefore more than welcome that the parliamentary majority that came to power in Lithuania in 2016 has adopted major alcohol control policies. In March 2017, the taxes on all alcoholic beverages were substantially increased and on January 1st of 2018 the legal age for alcohol consumption was increased to 20 years (previously 18). Further restrictions on alcohol selling hours in shops and a comprehensive alcohol advertising ban were also introduced. These measures are fully in line with the three ‘Best Buys’ recommended for alcohol control policy by the WHO . Over half of the population in Lithuania, according to sociological survey by ‘Vilmorus’ in May 2017, supported the full alcohol advertising ban .
It goes without saying that the new policy measures are inconvenient for the alcohol industry. The comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising is especially disruptive for the industry since it has both short term and long term consequences for sales. From a public health side, it fosters hope of freeing next generations of potential consumers from the insidious effects of alcohol ads. The biggest concern of the international alcohol industry is not expected to be the Lithuanian market itself, but the inspiration Lithuania can give to other countries. That would explain the alcohol industry’s political noise surrounding minor implementation glitches. It is a tactic that seeks to weaken the policy measure over time. It has happened before in Lithuania and in many other countries.
Applying the ban on alcohol advertising to foreign magazines
The advertising ban introduced in Lithuania also applies to foreign magazines such as Vogue and National Geographic. Every year there is a small number of foreign publications containing alcohol ads imported to, but not specifically designed for, the Lithuanian market. Despite the fact that the importers of these journals were aware of the legislative changes for over half a year, they postponed complying actions to the last minute. The method they chose for complying in January 2018 was to remove pages with advertising or cover them with stickers. Those actions resulted in outrage on social and general media, with memes and cartoons of employees ripping out pages circulating widely. There has been speculation about this practice equaling censorship and worries raised regarding potential author and human rights issues. At the same time foreign publications that are specifically targeting Lithuanian market in local language have diligently complied with all the restrictions, and so did all national electronic media outlets.
These media reports resulted in escalating controversy around new alcohol policy, and, as a result, the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite expressed her embarrassment about the situation: “It is shameful that distributors have to cover pages of foreign media publications sold in Lithuania in order to respect new alcohol advertising ban.”(4)
Instead of pride over the bold decision by the Lithuanian parliament to tackle a serious social and health problem, the public is being served with the doubts about the new policies. The relatively small problem of imported magazines could be tackled through looking across the borders and examining how countries such as France, Sweden, Norway and Iceland solve this problem. In those countries, similar advertising prohibitions for alcohol have been in force for years.
The alcohol advertising ban for foreign magazines in France, Norway, Iceland and Sweden.
Inquiries within the EUCAM expert network confirm that countries with very restrictive alcohol advertisement policies do not experience problems linked to alcohol advertising in foreign magazines. Colleagues in France indicate that the publishers of foreign journals respect the French advertising ban, although other sources show that the enforcement of the advertising bans in France is not optimal . Formally, if the prohibition is violated, a complaint can be filed and a fine can be imposed. And it does happen from time to time. In Norway and Iceland, an exception is provided within the Law for foreign publications in foreign languages, unless the main purpose of these magazines is alcohol advertising. Alcohol ads in imported foreign magazines not directed to Swedish consumers are tolerated in Sweden on the grounds that these journals constitute such a tiny part of the market and thereby do not constitute a public health threat.
Experience shows that the alcohol industry continuously seeks to undermine government alcohol policy. For example, the wide-ranging ban on alcohol advertising in France, the so-called Loi Evin from 1991, has been considerably weakened under pressure from industry in recent years. As a result the ban is now much less effective (5).
It is very likely that the industry will continue their strong lobbying offensive, using all instruments available to them to push Lithuanian parliament members to rethink and change current legislation. Demanding exemptions on minor issues helps weaken the Law and create loopholes that might be difficult for the government to combat. These actions are designed to demonstrate the supposed ‘futility’ of regulations in general.
The international health community encourages Lithuanian government to stay strong and seek alternative ways to ensure availability of diverse publications, rather than amending the already amended and uncompromising Law on Alcohol Control.
-Wim van Dalen, director Dutch Institute for Alcohol Policy STAP, The Netherlands -Nijole Gostautaite Midttun, president Lithuanian Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition, Lithuania.
- Progress report on implementation of the European Action Plan to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol 2012-2020, 2017 Budapest (Hungary)
- ‘Best buys’ and other recommended interventions for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases; Geneva, World Health Organization, 2017
- Vilnius, Jan. 10 (Xinhua); http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/11/c_136886075.htm
- Gallopel-Morvan,K. ,Spilka,S. ,Mutatayi,C .Rigaud,A. ,Lecas,F. ,Beck,F :France’s Evin Law on the control of advertising: content, effectiveness and limitations; Addiction, 112, 86-93; 2017