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Finland - Consumption trends

Changes in total alcohol consumption in Finland

Unlike most countries in Western Europe, in Finland, the total consumption of alcohol continued to increase after the mid-1970s. The economic recession of the early 1990s reduced consumption for a few years. However, in the mid-1990s, the recession abated and alcohol became more easily accessible at the same time: mild alcohol beverages became available in kiosks and at service stations, the opening hours of stores and licensed bars and restaurants were extended, and quotas for travellers’ tax-free imports of alcohol were increased. The ‘booze rally’ escalated at the Eastern border and in Tallinn, and in 1995 the total consumption increased by 10 per cent compared with the previous year. (THL 2013)


In order to reduce alcohol imports by travellers, time limits for a minimum stay outside Finland in order to be allowed to import tax-free alcohol were reintroduced in May 1996 for travel between Finland and non-EU countries, such as Russia and Estonia. (THL 2013)


In 2004, the availability of alcohol again changed significantly, as quotas for travellers’ tax-free imports of alcohol from other EU countries were abolished and Estonia joined the EU. Finland anticipated the growth of travellers’ alcohol imports by cutting alcohol taxes by one third on average. This reduced travellers’ imports, but total consumption and alcohol-related harm started to increase rapidly. The total alcohol consumption reached its highest point in 2005, being 10.5 litres in 100% alcohol per capita. (THL 2013)


As a result of the considerable increase in alcohol-related harm, Finns adopted a stricter attitude towards alcohol consumption. Requests for abolishing alcohol regulation became less common. In order to reduce consumption and alcohol-related harm, the Government increased the alcohol tax five times between 2008 and 2014. By the end of 2014, the increases reduced the total consumption to 9.3 litres of 100% alcohol per capita, which means 11.1 litres for each Finn 15 years and older.


A law change in early 2018 raised the alcohol limit on alcoholic drinks sold in supermarkets from 4.7 percent to 5.5 percent. That minor adjustment brought a sales uptick for the first time in six years, even though the growth was just 0.6 percent from 2017. In terms of 100 percent pure alcohol, the total per capita consumption - of people over the age of 15 - in 2018 was 10.4 litres.


Development of drinking habits

Total consumption of alcoholic drinks in Finland increased by 350% between the start of the 1960s and 2007. At its high point, alcohol consumption was at 12.7 litres for every person aged 15 or over. Since then, alcohol consumption has decreased by nearly one fifth.


The drinking habits survey indicates that between 2008 and 2016, which was the time when overall consumption was decreasing, the following health-enhancing changes have taken place in Finns aged between 15 and 69:

the percentage of men who consume alcohol every week has decreased from 60% to 53%

the percentage of women who consume alcohol every week has decreased from 35% to 28%

the quantity of alcohol consumed in one sitting has decreased for men

the percentage of completely teetotal men has increased from 10% to 12%

the percentage of completely teetotal women has increased from 10% to 15%.


In addition

alcohol consumption by minors has significantly decreased since the start of the millennium

the long-term growth trend in alcohol consumption by retired people appears to have been reversed. (THL 2018)


1,200,000 Finns have experienced negative drinking consequences
According to the survey, a total of 1,200,000 Finns have experienced in the preceding year negative drinking consequences, such as rows, fights or accidents. If we deduct from this number the most common, and relatively light, a consequence of ‘regrettable words or actions’, the number having experienced at least one negative drinking consequence still remains at close to 900,000.


Acute alcohol-related problems, such as accidents, have decreased as overall consumption and drunkenness have decreased. The share of chronic problems has increased over both the period surveyed and over the longer term: 27% of alcohol-related deaths in 1987 resulted from chronic illnesses, while the equivalent figure for 2016 was 64%.


Drinking by minors decreased significantly throughout the last decade. Nevertheless, it is young, under-30-year-olds for whom drunkenness episodes as a proportion of total alcohol consumption episodes are at its highest, and this age group also experience the most negative drinking consequences. Over half of 15–29-year-olds (46%) had experienced negative drinking consequences, while the equivalent figure for 30–59-year-olds was 21% and for 60–79-year-olds just 6%. (THL 2018)


Additionally, recent research data do not suggest that future generations would consume less alcohol than their predecessors. Even though minors are drinking less than before, binge-drinking at the age of 18 is just as common as in earlier decades, and among young women, it is even more common than before. (Lintonen et al 2015)


Finns often consume alcohol at the weekends, at home, and together with their partner
The drinking habits survey also highlights the typical features of Finnish alcohol use. Finns typically consume alcohol at home (77% of drinking episodes), together with their partner (43% of drinking episodes), at the weekend from Friday to Sunday (68% of episodes) between 8pm and 9pm (840,000 Finns are having a drink on Saturdays between 8pm and 9pm), and totalling less than four units (68% of episodes). Finns prefer brewery products (49% of recorded consumption) and do not normally consume alcohol with food (8% drink wine with food every week, 7% drink beer). (THL 2018)


Alcohol tax and the booze rally
The questions and challenges related to alcohol imports by travellers also concern Sweden and, indirectly, Norway (an EEA country). In Finland, however, taxation policies have been much more inconsistent compared with those countries.


Until recent years, Nordic and Finnish alcohol policies have strongly relied on taxation, but in Finland the situation has changed in a short while. Fear of increasing alcohol imports, particularly from Estonia, has restrained decision-makers’ desire to further increase alcohol taxation. However, from 2008 to 2012, imports by travellers remained on a stable level, despite four alcohol tax increases. In 2013, imports by travellers increased. In consequence of this, the alcohol tax increase in 2014 was only half of that planned. In 2014, imports by travellers started to decrease slightly. (THL 2014b)


In summer of 2018 THL reported that the import of alcohol from Estonia to Finland has plummeted by more than one-fifth. The amount of alcohol imported from Estonia fell by some 23.1 percent in the past year. In terms of pure alcohol, during the period of May 2017-April 2018 travellers brought in some 6.4 million litres from Estonia while the year before that figure stood at 8.3 million litres. The drop can be explained by a steep alohol tax increase in 2017 in Estonia when beer taxes were increased by almost 90%. (THL 2018)


Figure 2: Development of imports by travellers by beverage type from 5/2004 to 8/2014, million litres of 100% alcohol


The month shown is the month in which the rolling 12-month period ends. For example, ‘8/14’ indicates imports by travellers from 09/13 to 08/14.
Reference: THL 2014b

In their advocacy work, the Federation of the Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry, which represents the brewing industry, and other players in the field of alcohol industry emphasise imports by travellers as a critical threat to their industry. In public debate, alcohol imported by travellers has become the main theme of the Finnish alcohol policy. Tax increases, for example, are strongly criticised. Tax increases have been successful in decreasing both the total consumption and the costs of alcohol-related harm. In addition, tax increases bring a multiple amount of tax income compared with possible increased imports by travellers from Estonia.


The value of the Finnish alcohol market (retailing and licensed serving of alcohol) is EUR 4.5 billion (THL 2014a). According to the estimate of the Finnish Ministry of Finance, the value of imports by travellers is EUR 200–300 million. Despite the concerns raised by the Federation of the Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry, a considerable percentage of the beer consumed in Finland is bought in Finnish stores, kiosks and service stations. It should also be kept in mind that a large proportion of brewery products imported from ferries or Estonia is produced by Finnish breweries or their Estonian subsidiaries.


Climate change in the alcohol policy
After the rapid increase in total alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm starting in 2004, the Finnish alcohol policy climate remained very peaceful for years. Most Finns have been satisfied with the current alcohol policy and regulation. Stricter regulation has even been preferred to deregulation. During the 2007–2011 term of government, the Finnish Parliament demanded that image advertising of alcohol be prohibited. The Parliament referred to strong research-based evidence on the effects of alcohol advertisements, particularly on children and adolescents.


In recent years, requests for deregulation have once again increased, and the alcohol policy debate has become more heated. During the Parliamentary election campaign in spring 2015, a considerable number of candidates on candidate election machines expressed views related to the liberalisation of the Finnish alcohol policy.


The new restrictions to alcohol advertising that came into effect in January 2015 stirred vigorous public debate in autumn 2014. What actually had been decided was often obscured in the debate. The restriction of advertising was seen as a Finnish innovation, and Finland was referred to as ‘Bureauslavia’. The public debate culminated in the so-called Whiskygate. The false information according to which the authorities had prohibited the use of the word ‘whisky’ raised a storm, particularly in social media. Some members of parliament who had voted for the restrictions publicly demanded that the decisions should be cancelled. Some elements of the alcohol policy debate started to resemble hate speech. The government, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the National Institute for Health and Welfare and substance abuse organisations were in the firing line.


In December 2017 Finland’s parliament voted to loosen up its alcohol policy, which has been in place since the 1960s. Supermarkets are now able to sell beer and cider that have up to 5.5 per cent alcohol (up from 4.7 per cent). Restaurants and bars will be able to stay open later without special permission.

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