Editorial: booze populism

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Photo: Toomas Tatar / Postimees

In Estonia, alcoholism is a serious problem. Takes no statistician or social scientist to prove that, any citizen may tell it all. Makes no difference if we are looking at alcohol related deaths, the traffic or just the street view. We are troubled by alcohol (over)users young and old. In all kinds of health and social costs, alcohol weighs heavy on us and causes grief as people close to us – family, neighbours, colleagues – gets drowned in its many sorrows. Also, alcohol plays a major role in crime and breaching of public order.

Now, once a state and society is well aware of a problem, it needs to be tackled systemically and steadfastly. With our representative democracy, it’s Riigikogu that needs to take these decisions. But what have we seen this year? The Riigikogu will take some decision, then to reverse it in less than half year. This, precisely, is what happened with the law and order act whereby in July it was allowed (with certain limits) to consume alcohol in public places. Yesterday, the blanket ban was restored.

As soon as the law entered into force in summer, the city of Tallinn – in opposition to the government – organised a media show whereby alcohol consumption was allowed at Toompea and Kadriorg. While the protest had a point – essentially, every local government developed its own tippling map – the spirit of the law was not an obligation to drink. In an opinion piece for Postimees, Western police prefect Priit Suve substantiated the law as an «opportunity to boost relations, strengthen communities and developing democracy as a whole». In other words, law and order thought a solution would come through self regulation, culture, unwritten laws.  

In letter of explanation to the reinstituted ban, a National Institute for Health Development ordered Turu-uuringute AS study is cited which says 82 percent of respondents are not in favour of allowing alcohol consumption in public places. Probably, on wings of such studies, we might go much farther, up to the very prohibition. But then why not ask the people: should we cut the Riigikogu by half?

The whole circus is more than an embarrassment. Political games with a serious problem in a society is no honour to the Riigikogu, the government, not the parties represented in the parliament. With the absence of a well planned policy to cut overconsumption and promoting culture, alcohol gets to play the role of a populist whip which, in various issues, may be cracked by activating a vociferous part of society.

A recent such example related to the freshly approved Maritime Safety Act amendment which cut the allowed amount of alcohol in watercraft driver blood. Here also, the debate was quite the formal and logical treadmill: reasoning based on customary practice and culture became propaganda of alcoholism.