Alcohol advertising supporters and foes to face off in bid to overturn law this fall

  • 2011-07-20
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

IMPOSSIBLE MISSION: A 24-hour ban on alcohol advertising will have little effect on reducing alcohol consumption, says Aloyzas Sakalas.

KLAIPEDA - Since regaining its independence in 1990, Lithuania has been struggling under tremendous alcohol damage, catapulting the country onto the top of EU countries in booze consumption and among the leaders in alcohol-related suicides, psychoses and car accidents. In tackling this plight, the Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) adopted the Alcohol Control Law in 2008, which tightens the grip on broadcast media, a main alcohol advertiser. The law includes an amendment to install a total ban on alcohol advertising in 2012, which, with the timeline approaching, has revved up efforts of alcohol industry lobbyists, liberals and some non-liberals trying to overturn the law that, if in effect, would put Lithuania on the very top of European countries with the most stringent alcohol control laws.

As a result of these efforts, the law is likely to be seriously shaken up in the Seimas’ autumn session, when some liberal parliamentarians’ draft amendments to overturn the law will be put to a vote.
Will the legislative piece that many call a Taliban-like law cling on? Will its overturn follow? And how far will alcohol market lobbyists advance in attempts to influence the legislators? It seems, however, with these questions out there, the fate of the flare-inflicting law will boil down to the following: will the Conservatives not budge, in fear of retaliation from Lithuanian broadcasters, who would experience the severest blows by the current law? Will the right-wing politicians especially bow before the next parliamentary elections in the fall of 2012? It seems that the latter may be the crucial factor in swaying the votes.

Although Lithuanian TV and radio stations do not disclose their alcohol advertising revenues, it is estimated that these make up a considerable bulk of broadcasters’ income. According to some experts, the figure may reach 25 percent. With stringent limitations on alcohol advertising already in force, that prohibit alcohol advertising on local TV and radio stations before 11 p.m., Lithuania is ready to step up its efforts to wipe out alcohol advertisements from Lithuanian TV screens and radio waves. This will happen if the current Alcohol Control Law, forbidding any form of alcohol advertising in Lithuanian media and on outdoor billboards, will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

If passed, such a piece of legislation will be the most stringent law on alcohol advertising in the entire European Union. Out of 27 EU member states, nine -  France, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK - do not apply any restrictions on alcohol advertising in the media, while others only limit advertisements for strong alcoholic beverages. Lithuanian media laments that it is being muzzled by bitter and liberal media-hostile politicians, who mostly belong to the right-wing political spectrum.

Traditionally the strong Lithuanian Catholic Church has also openly been pushing for the round-the-clock alcohol advertising ban. Its level of lobbying has gone to such an extent that political analyst Darius Kuolys warns that “some vociferous Lithuanian ultra-right elements, in conjunction with the powerful Church, are radicalizing the entire ruling Motherland Union-Christian Democrat Party (MU-CDP).”

However, it seems that a handful of members from the MU-CDP itself have some strong doubts about the effects of the law and its impact on local broadcasters, therefore, tilting to the overturn of the law. “The current law, prohibiting TV alcohol advertising until 11 pm, is sufficiently strict. Even if we pass the most stringent alcohol advertising law in the world, literally banning any form of advertising, I am sure those who are inclined to consume alcohol will certainly find ways to do so. Especially, bearing in mind the open borders, the amounts of counterfeit booze and all the gaps in our legislation,” Agne Bilotaite, a conservative parliamentarian and a MU-CDP faction member, says.

Acknowledging the need to tighten up outdoor billboard advertising, she is reluctant to do so with the national broadcasters. “Obviously, with the current law in effect from 2012, they [broadcasters] will experience big losses. It will result in a poor quality of social and civic programs, or their being scrapped from the screen. Most importantly, the advertising money will move to the broadcasters that air in Lithuania but are registered in other countries. It seems to me we are going to weaken our national broadcasters. Besides, the law does not apply to Internet Web sites, so it is unfair to single out only TV broadcasters in the prohibition,” the PM inferred to The Baltic Times. She said she has not made up her mind yet whether to support the amendment leading to the revocation of the Alcohol Control Law. Bilotaite admits that opinions on the issue within the ranks of the Seimas Conservatives vary to a great length. She says that different factors “shape up the notions.”

The legislator, however, is particularly concerned about the impact of alcohol market lobbyists on the parliamentarians. “It is there and it is huge. When we were passing the law, the visitor rostrums in the Seimas hall were full of representatives of the industry. It happens always when we deliberate on lobbyist-sensitive issues. Alas, I have to admit, we do not have necessary regulations defining whether a law amendment is coming from a party, parliamentarian or from a lobbyist,” Bilotaite emphasized.

Jonas Juozapaitis, a doctor by profession and chairman of the Health Committee of the Social Democrat Party, a major opposition party in the parliament, asserts that the previous alcohol advertising restriction had resulted in lesser numbers of alcohol-related psychoses and suicides. “And the opposite: the less constraints, the more suicides and psychoses,” he says.
As for the liberal amendment to be discussed in the fall, Juozapaitis says that Social Democrats are to make up their mind “very soon.”

“I have a strong feeling some support the liberalization of the law, as many will take into consideration the projected impact of the 24-hour-alcohol-advertising-ban on the national broadcasters. Sure, as politicians bear in mind the upcoming parliamentary elections, no one wants to anger the media. No doubt, the lobbyism efforts for the more liberal law are in full swing out there,” he acknowledged to The Baltic Times.

Andrea Lavesson, president of Active – sobriety, friendship and peace, a European Youth Umbrella NGO with members in 28 countries, says that “it is no surprise that the alcohol industry is going all out, using blackmail to turn the situation around.”
“What is important for the alcohol industry is the money they earn in Lithuania and elsewhere. They obviously don’t care for public health, societal development and democratic procedures,” Lavesson said in a press release.

However, it seems the arguments do not reach either many legislators, nor Lithuanian broadcasters, who, along with trendy Web site owners, are increasing pressure on the pro-24-hour-ban-inclined legislators, nearly unanimously pointing to the adverse impact of the ban - impoverishment of national broadcasters, downsizing their staff, reviewing content, possibly axing many social and civic-oriented programs that do not attract advertising money. The broadcasters argue that Russian TV and radio stations airing in Lithuania would benefit from the ban, as they are not subject to Lithuanian laws.

“Obviously, the 24-hour alcohol advertising ban would affect us tremendously. I have no doubt that it would not reach its goal – to slash alcohol use – as drinking habits have been influenced not by media, but by other factors, such as the Soviet system, desperation over the murky economic outlook and tense social trends. The Lithuanian government is partly to be blamed for that, not the media,”  Giedrius Vasiliauskas, financial director at LNK television, the second largest TV network in Lithuania, said to The Baltic Times.

Without elaborating on the share alcohol advertising makes up in LNK’s total revenues, Vasiliauskas said he is convinced that the ban will actually benefit Russian TV and radio broadcasters in Lithuania. “Statistically, approximately 30 percent of TV and radio audiences tune frequently to Russian broadcasters available in Lithuania. No doubt, alcohol advertisers are aware of that. The 24-hour ban, coupled with less high-quality programs, due to lack of financing, will lead many viewers and listeners to switch to the Russian channels which, as a consequence, will attract the alcohol advertising money. Is that what our government wants?” wonders Vasiliauskas.

In targeting the Lithuanian-speaking audience, some Russian television stations provide Lithuanian subtitles for more popular programs, which would not be affected by the ban, either. “If the ban goes into effect from 2012, the Latvia-based Russian Pervyj Baltiskij channel, which is re-broadcast in Lithuania and remains one of the most popular foreign language TV channels in Lithuania, will gain a considerable competitive advantage,” points out Andrius Romanovskis, a representative of Lithuania’s Radio and Television Association. “Obviously, the competitive advantage would breach Lithuanian anti-monopoly laws,” Romanovskis says.

Lithuanian commercial TV channels are scrambling to get around this hurdle and are considering registration in a foreign country, including Latvia, as one of the possible options. “If this happens, Lithuanian TV channels will pay taxes in their country of registration and will be able to broadcast alcohol advertisements to the Lithuanian audience. Lithuanian law enforcement authorities will not be able to do anything about it, since the EU’s Audiovisual Media Service Directive allows a broadcaster to be registered in another EU country and broadcast from there,” Romanovskis explains.

The ban, many argue, would also endanger support for Lithuanian sports, since, in accordance with the Alcohol Advertising Law, a substantial part of the revenues derived from alcohol advertising help to fill the coffers of Lithuania’s sport federations. What’s more, industry insiders warn, the ban will not succeed in wiping out alcohol advertising, as the ban is not applied to Web sites registered abroad either.

“Alcohol advertising will not just fade away,” asserts Aiste Zilinskiene, chairwoman of Lithuania’s Internet Media Association. “It will move to Internet sites registered abroad and it will also be empowered by trendy social networks like Facebook. It is easier for an Internet site than a TV network to register abroad. Undoubtedly, some Lithuanian Internet sites, facing the severe consequences of the ban, will do just that,” she said.

National producers of alcoholic beverages, concerned about the murky prospects for their business, are warning that they may be forced to lay off workers before 2012. “If wearing a T-shirt with the name and logo of a beer producer will be seen as an infringement of the law after 2012, there is no sense in investing in the brand and in the local market,” notes Saulius Galadauskas, head of Lithuania’s Beer Producers Guild.

“I can just hope that rationality and common sense will prevail,” Dainius Radzevicius, chairman of Lithuania’s Journalist Union, said adding, “We traditionally tend to tackle problems in Lithuania by simply adopting bans. It is a pity that instead of educating people and raising public awareness on the threats of excessive alcohol consumption, our legislators opt for bans, which prove to not be working in Lithuania.”

If the law is not revised, Radzevicius warns, TV channels will have to discontinue many socially and civic-oriented news programs that do not generate money. “Besides, some really professional journalists will be sacked. It is ridiculous to speak about a ban that suits more an Islamic, not an EU, country,” he pointed out to The Baltic Times.
Radzevicius argues that alcohol is a legal product in the European Union and Lithuania. “How can an EU state ban a legal commodity?” Radzevicius cannot grasp. “We will not achieve anything by banning. Smuggling cigarettes is banned; however, plenty of people smuggle them. If we adopt the 24-hour alcohol advertising ban, we will throw a lethal punch to our media. Obviously, Russian news and entertainment channels will be the ones to rejoice over our hypocritical morality,” says parliament member Kestutis Dauksys.

Certainly, the battle over the much-disputed law will be fierce, as the ruling Motherland Union-Christian Democrat Party, seeing low support ratings, is prepared to get on its side its most ardent supporter - the Lithuanian Catholic Church.
However, regardless of the outcome of the duel, even seasoned politicians doubt whether the 24-hour-ban will curb alcohol consumption in the country. “If the stringent law hangs on, it will not produce any positive results, as it only promotes alcohol contraband and the scope of counterfeit booze. It is in stark contradiction to the government’s plans to tackle the shadow economy,” Aloyzas Sakalas, a prominent Social Democrat, said to The Baltic Times.