Lithuania liberalizes liquor legislation

  • 2002-01-31
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Liberalization of Lithuania's draconian liquor laws continues after Parliament voted that the home brewing of strong beer should no longer be a criminal offense.

Last year Parliament revoked a ban on the sale of alcoholic drinks between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., and made it legal for gas stations to sell liquor.

Following the adoption on Jan. 18 of the latest amendments to the criminal code and the law on alcohol control, President Valdas Adamkus went a step further. He called for the legalization of home-produced "samane" - homemade moonshine traditionally made in the southern Dzukija region.

Parliament discussed a government proposal to abolish the state's monopoly on the production of strong alcoholic beverages from next year.

Currently, the Lithuanian state owns majority stakes in all producers of liquor with an alcohol content over 22 percent with the exception of Stakliskiu Midus, the producer of a strong mead liquor known as midus.

"We'll have more parliamentary discussions in March and we'll pass the law this year," Liberal MP Eligijus Masiulis told The Baltic Times.

"I don't agree with some Christian Democrats who promote restrictions and cry about the alcoholization of our nation. The roots of alcoholism are social problems, not liberalization of alcohol policy. It is the social issues we need to solve.

"In recent years alcohol consumption trends have been rather positive. People are drinking more beer and less vodka."

But any legislation liberalizing alcohol was condemned by Christian Democrat MP Petras Grazulis, speaking on the popular TV discussion show "Paskutine Kryzkele" (Last Crossroads).

"We need to follow the Scandinavians' example. In Norway there are only 114 shops that sell alcohol, and in Stockholm, a city of 2 million people, there are only seven such shops. Advertising alcohol is banned in Scandinavia, but it flourishes in Lithuania."

Ending the state monopoly on strong alcohol production would poison the nation because private firms might pay less attention to product quality, he said.

Alvydas Repecka, a toxicologist at the Vilnius-based Baltic American Clinic, said the current debate often ignores the origins of Lithuania's drinking culture. He said banning alcohol advertising would be useless unless teachers and priests worked to change public attitudes.

"Drinking problems are similar in all the western parts of former czarist Russia - in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland - and the Baltics got another dose of Russian influence during the Soviet occupation.

"These originally Western cultures were influenced by the Russian drinking culture, which could be summed up well by Russian folk sayings like 'You can't drink a lot of tea - it's not vodka‚' or 'The day is lost if you've had no drink in the morning.'

"Alcohol problems in these five countries fall somewhere between Russia, with its huge alcoholism problem, and Western Europe, with its relatively small problems in this field."

Repecka also drew attention to Lithuania's cold northern climate as a factor: "In Norway, almost every village produces moonshine illegally whereas southern people prefer wine. Former Soviet republics in the Caucuses managed to preserve their traditional wine culture and have no alcohol problems."