The Nordic and Baltic region has been an exciting laboratory for everyone interested in alcohol research and policy. With Nordic countries, we have a long and effective experience with WHO recommended alcohol policies and with that one of the lowest alcohol consumption and harm rates in Europe. Baltic countries, understanding the different situation they are coming from, has had one of the highest consumption rates in Europe and thus also in the world and has also struggled with introducing actual alcohol strategies. Within the last few years, a significant change has taken place, and Lithuania and Estonia have adopted new regulations that are now showing the way to rest of Europe. Latvia is also planning further changes that include stronger alcohol advertising limits etc.
Nordic Alcohol Policy Report is beginning to broaden its scope by adding chapters also on different drugs. Although the Nordic countries are often seen as ideal in practically every global ranking of quality of life and social equality, the number of drug-related deaths in these countries is among the highest in Europe. Together with Baltic countries.
Opioids, including heroin, methadone and buprenorphine, account for the majority of fatal overdoses in these countries.
The following page provides a summary of the main comparative data, and more detailed reports can be found from each country report.
As the dust of the COVID-19 pandemic finally begins to settle, we face some challenges. One such sphere is alcohol policy and consumption, where researchers still need to figure out what actually happened.
A paradigm shift of political leanings is sweeping across the traditionally social-democratic Nordic countries, signified by a clear turn to the right. An example of this shift can be seen in Finland's most recent change in government. The incoming administration installed this midsummer is the most right-leaning in Finnish history, and their approach towards alcohol policy indicates a significant change.
They've justified this policy shift with a claim of alignment with broader Europe. However, their decision to weaken an already weakened retail monopoly system, permitting 8% strength alcohol in grocery stores, is a turn against the evidence-based best practice. What's more, it's indicated that this might be a precursor to allowing wines in these outlets at a later date, further diluting the monopoly.
Meanwhile, Germany's proposition to legalize cannabis has stirred up unease, with fears of a potential domino effect in other European nations. Though disaster was temporarily averted, the likelihood of this long-term plan resurfacing is high.
One of the more telling revelations of the post-pandemic era is a noticeable uptick in alcohol consumption in several countries, as shown in the graph here. Whether this is related to the pandemic or if there are other influences at play is something that only time will tell.
The very fabric of societal norms has been indelibly altered by the pandemic, which, in turn, has catalyzed some shifts in alcohol policies and consumption patterns. While the full extent of these changes remains to be seen, these developments are stark reminders of the evolving nature of political landscapes and the far-reaching effects of global crises.
Alcohol consumption levels in Nordic/Baltic countries
# Methods how countries measure alcohol consumption differs. Find more detailed information from each country report.
What can we learn from recent changes in drinking habits in the Nordic and Baltic countries? What should we keep in mind, and what problems might we face when looking at this 2019-2021 data? Why are people in Finland drinking less, and why are people in Lithuania drinking more?
It is essential to remember that the data collection methodology varies considerably from country to country. As such, the most meaningful comparison is within a single country over time rather than cross-country comparisons.
COVID Effect: The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated societal shifts on alcohol consumption patterns is still becoming clear. Although some studies have shown an overall decrease in per capita consumption, there's evidence that the heaviest drinkers increased their intake. The pandemic changed how we functioned, spent our free time and socialised in the short term. Did it also introduce long-term changes? We will see.
Cross-Border Context: The influence of cross-border trade on alcohol consumption varies significantly between countries. The Nordic and Baltic countries, notably Finland and Estonia, are heavily affected by cross-border trade. The unique period during the pandemic when borders were fully closed, or travel was significantly reduced may have impacted consumption patterns in these countries. The changes, however, are diverse due to differing social contexts.
Overall Alcohol Policy: While individual policy changes are important, the broader policy framework and prevailing societal situation play a more significant role in shaping annual alcohol consumption. Despite Finland liberalising its retail monopoly system in 2018, it is the only country in this comparison where alcohol consumption has decreased over the three years. This suggests that Finland's overall strong alcohol policy, which includes a still functioning monopoly system, high alcohol prices, and recently improved advertising restrictions, has had a more significant impact on consumption than the single liberalisation measure. But step-by-step liberalisation can, of course, have very negative effects on this policy framework.
Effect of Societal Problems: Recent years have seen a rise in societal challenges that have sparked unexpected changes in behaviour and personal choices. From immigration and climate change to global security and inflation, these pressing issues influence societal functions and likely impact also drinking patterns. These changes have caused a political shift towards right-leaning parties in Nordic countries which in turn influence alcohol policy and then also consumption trends.
Continual Alcohol Policy Improvement: Regardless of how robust an alcohol policy may be, it should never be considered 'done'. The dynamic nature of societal changes and challenges requires constant vigilance in enforcing and improving how governments address alcohol, tobacco, and drug issues. Fluctuations in drinking levels, even in Nordic countries with traditionally strong alcohol policies, are inevitable and demand ongoing attention.
Nordic vs. Baltic Societies: The fundamental societal conditions in a country, shaped by long-term policies and social conditions, cannot be transformed overnight. When a country like Lithuania implements Nordic-style alcohol policies, alcohol consumption does not swiftly drop to levels similar to Norway. Although there has been a decrease in Lithuania, the 'new normal' is influenced by social challenges and the country's historical background. Societies are resilient and require time for fundamental changes.