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Interview with Aurelijus Veryga about an alcohol ad ban in Lithuania

By Lauri Beekmann

In 2012 Lithuania was supposed to ban all alcohol advertising. With this it would become the first EU country to have a total ban on alcohol advertising. With 2012 approaching different stakeholders are getting more active to reverse this decision. Aurelijus Veryga, President of the Lithuanian National Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition, explains what this small Baltic country is going through.

How is alcohol advertising regulated in Lithuania till now?

Alcohol producers say that Lithuania is one of the most regulated countries in the EU regarding alcohol advertising, but this is just from their point of view. Before 2008 the regulation of alcohol advertising was mostly about content restrictions. It was forbidden to link alcohol use with better physical or mental health, to use famous sport people in advertisements and to advertise alcohol on front pages of newspapers and magazines. In fact there were many violations of the law and all the biggest alcohol producers were fined for violating alcohol control laws.

After a tobacco advertising ban was introduced in 2000 there was a drastic increase of alcohol advertisements and new alcohol drinks were introduced to the market e.g. ciders and alcopops. Advertising of these drinks as well as beer advertisement was mainly targeted to youngsters. It was connected with sports, leisure, beauty, freedom. It was very common to have special offers and give away tickets, glasses, DVDs etc. with alcoholic purchases. During 2001-2007 the number of alcohol intoxications of 7-14 year olds multiplied by 17 times.

This was one of the reasons to start discussions of more strict regulations of alcohol marketing. In 2008 alcohol advertisement was banned on TV and radio from 6 AM till 11 PM. Other measures were taken at the same time including increased excise duties and restrictions on time to sell alcohol. All these measures together had a great impact in reducing alcohol consumption not only among children but also among adults. In 2 years the number of alcohol intoxications and alcoholic psychosis cases decreased by 30 %. After the restrictions on alcohol advertising were introduced the sales of alcopops decreased significantly and the number of children intoxication cases also started to fall.

Now Lithuania is moving towards a total ban. How did that come about?

In 2008 a total ban of alcohol advertising was proposed by the alcohol industry as an alternative to time restrictions. The industry did this in the hope that politicians would accept the idea of a total ban from 2012 but would allow alcohol advertising during daytime until that date. Public interest on this question was very high and many NGOs and other groups were writing to MPs and the President asking for restrictions on alcohol advertising. The Parliament approved the ban of alcohol advertising during daytime on TV and radio since 2008 and also accepted the proposal of a total ban as of 2012. At that time various political parties supported this idea except liberal parties.

How did the industry react to that?

Before restrictions on daytime alcohol advertising were imposed there was a massive pressure from the alcohol industry, business associations and TV stations. The private TV stations threatened the politicians that they would move to Latvia where alcohol advertising is allowed. There was also pressure from sports associations when beer producers told them that they would stop supporting basketball games if advertising was restricted. The Director General of the Lithuanian National Radio and Television put also pressure on the government saying that Lithuania would not be able to broadcast the Football Championship if this law was accepted because of Carlsberg advertisement before every game. After this we found that there was no Carlsberg advertisement at all. There was a huge attack campaign against MPs that supported the introduction of this law. As a result of which some of the restrictions were softened.

After the softening of the restrictions all the discussions stopped and none of the private TV companies moved out of the country. For 2 years there has been no discussions, until recently when the total ban was to take full force, the economic operators have mobilized themselves to prevent the ban .

What has happened in the last few weeks? Are politicians really backing down?

As noted, the alcohol industry has learned a lot from the last discussions. They learned that the public is strong enough to put pressure on politicians in order to get public health oriented decisions. This time the alcohol industry, media and a few MPs met in a closed meeting just to decide how to act more effectively. Even the interested journalists were told that this was an internal discussion and not for the public. There was an attempt to organize an open discussion about alcohol advertising in one university, however the event was cancelled when the representative of the beer producers informed the organizers that he would not take part in the discussion. The new website removed the message from the news page about this event and sent a message to the students saying that "they received order from the top to remove the information about discussion". The owners of this website, also own one of the biggest commercial TV channels in Lithuania and also one of the biggest spirits production companies in the country.

What about the MPs? Have they been active in any way?

A few weeks after this, 14 MPs tabled an amendment to the alcohol control law to remove the upcoming ban on alcohol advertising. Most of these MPs were from the Conservative party that was mostly promoting evidence based alcohol control measures. In the party’s election platform it was written that they would seek evidence based alcohol control measures and would try to ban alcohol advertising. In fact they did the opposite. In the detailed document, most likely prepared by the alcohol industry and media companies, it is stated that it is not technically possible to implement a ban on foreign TV and Internet as this would discriminate against Lithuanian and cause channels to relocate. In addition there is no country in Europe that has such strict regulations. This document included a table which shows how different alcohol advertisement regulations are in the different European countries. However, Norway, which has a ban on alcohol advertising, was purposely left out of this table. All the information is prepared by alcohol business and media side. None of the public health and alcohol control institutions participated in the process.

We always hear from Parliament Spokespersons and MPs that the agenda of the Parliament is very busy and that’s why there are delays in the adoption of many legal texts. Despite this, the removal of alcohol advertisement ban was included in the Parliament’s agenda when 50 of 141 MPs signed the document to do this. In few days after that there was voting procedure on introduction of legal amendments and starting of discussion of the law. 60 out of almost 100 MPs who participated in plenary voted in favour of this. This was not the end. In bridge of Parliament statutes it was decided to choose not the committee for Health but the committee for Economic affairs to handle this issue.

Everything has been done extremely quickly in order to avoid public discussions. The Plenary of the Parliament will vote on this on June 28.

What position has media taken?

Media is the most scared about all of this. Most of the commercial TVs companies and printed media decided to block any information on this discussion that is coming from the public health side. It is only possible to find news about the media relocating outside the country if a ban is adopted but with no comments from public health side. The media is clearly afraid of the public reaction which was crucial two years ago. Only national television and radio, some commercial radio stations and Catholic press allowed discussion and information from the public health side. The biggest information channels only work with one side.

How active are the civil society organisations in this? Are they all supporting the ban?

Civil society organizations are very active as usual. There are many emails and letters coming to MPs asking for the introduction of this ban. Many MPs are angry because of these activities. A recent survey showed that 49% of the population supports a total ban, 43% is against and 8% has no opinion on this. These numbers are not presented in Parliament during discussions and are not taken into account.

Now civil society organisations are using every possible channel to tell people what is going on in the Parliament: from emails, Facebook and available media. However most of the population still does not know what the discussion is about.

Give your best prediction - how things will turn out?

We are afraid that if we will be not successful enough to inform society about the processes, politicians will not be afraid to take alcohol industry oriented decision. My feeling is that there is more pro industry than pro public health oriented MPs in the Parliament. So we expect the worst scenario. There is hope that the President of Lithuania will veto this law. But even then Parliament can collect 71 votes and decline President's veto.

We will work in every stage to do maximum possible to keep alcohol advertising ban in the law, but of course money and power is not in our side.