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Alcohol shelves gathering dust in South Estonia

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PHOTO: MARGUS ANSU/PM/SCANPIX BALTICS

Owners of shops near Estonia’s southern border complain that people have all but stopped buying alcohol, while a looming excise duty hike is looking to make matters worse. What is more, tobacco sales are also in danger of being hit by new legislation.

Owner of the Tiigi shop in Mustla, Viljandi county, Marge Pissarev, said that her only activity involving alcohol shelves is dusting. “Even wealthier people no longer buy alcohol from us. And you would really have to hate money to buy from here,” the shopkeeper said.

Even though Mustla is some 60 kilometers from the center of the Latvian alcohol rally, Valka, the effects of border trade can be felt clearly. “Things will take a turn for the worse when the duty goes up in February; that will be the end of sales,” Pissarev said.

Tobacco forced under the counter

Ly Raid, manager of the Sinilinnu shop in Kilingi-Nõmme, Pärnu county said as much. “Alcohol sales have all but disappeared as it is.” Raid said she fully understands people who go to Latvia to buy cheap alcohol. “Looking at the prices, you would have to be daft not to go there,” she said. “People want to save money and are looking for the cheaper option. There’s nothing that can be done about that,” she added.

If alcohol and tobacco sales used to count for half of the small shop’s turnover, their relative importance has now dropped to one-fifth. Alcohol only makes up 10 percent of the latter. Raid said that she doesn’t really want people to drink too much. “However, we can see how border trade has boosted alcohol sales.”

Small shops will have to think of ways to survive after the excise duty on alcohol goes up again next year. “We will think of something and adjust our activities if necessary,” Raid said. Small shopkeepers remain optimistic despite dwindling sales.

In addition to ceaseless excise duty hikes, traders could soon be looking at another unpleasant surprise. The Riigikogu is currently discussing amendments to the Tobacco Act the most severe item of which would force shops to hide tobacco products from sight.

Marge Pissarev said that she cannot imagine how that would look in her shop in Mustla. “It is one thing that we’ll have to reorganize our tiny shop, while it’s another matter entirely how clients will ask for cigarettes and what we will be allowed to show them. It is all very unclear,” she said.

There are a lot of brands and types of tobacco: cigarettes with single or double menthol capsules, cigarettes of varying nicotine content and length. “How will the client choose if they cannot see the selection is what I cannot understand,” Pissarev said.

Ly Raid from Kilingi-Nõmme said that should the display ban be passed, the shop will have to start keeping cigarettes under the counter or in a wall cabinet. “It would be like a pharmacy where we would go and get the product the client asks for,” Raid joked. The need to hide tobacco products will require investments and reorganization of products in the already tight confines of small shops.

The hassle and expenses these kinds of restrictions bring about are one thing, while what is even more important is that small shops interpret it as another move by the government to corner them.

“In a situation where everything is so thoroughly regulated and restricted, it would be easier to ban alcohol and tobacco sales in Estonia. It would make things easier for everyone,” Raid said in summary.

Even though small shopkeepers tend to be accommodating and slow to raise alarm, the Estonian Small Traders Association has decided to lament the tobacco sales restrictions this time. The association has collected the signatures of 279 small shops and put together an address to the government, claiming that effecting the display ban would result in small rural area shops dying out.

Member of the board of the association, one of the owners of the Aldar Eesti chain of small shops, Riho Maurer, said that country shops are counting every penny, and that reconstruction is impossible in a lot of shops due to lack of space.

“Should display restrictions be passed, every trader must proceed based on their possibilities and what their shop can accommodate. It is probable tobacco products will be placed under the counter or in special cabinets,” Maurer said.

Riigikogu promises to weigh matter carefully

Even though Maurer admitted small shops are not maintained, nor could they be, on tobacco sales alone, the ban should be seen as a step among many. Considering other restrictions, like more restrained display of alcohol, small shops are looking at considerable reorganization. “All of it costs money,” he said.

“In addition to upcoming regulations, sales of small shops, especially in Southern Estonia, are hit by border trade. All this together could prove fatal to small shops,” Maurer found. He added that shops are often far more than places of commerce in rural areas.

The aim of stricter tobacco restrictions by the social ministry is to prevent and curb addiction and harm to human health caused by tobacco and corresponding products.

The ban on display of tobacco products first and foremost aims to keep minors away from tobacco, while it will also influence ex-smokers and people looking to quit smoking.

The bill is waiting for its second reading in the Riigikogu. Chairman of the Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee Helmen Kütt said that the committee will take a more serious look at the amendment the week from next. Kütt could not say what kind of adjustments will be made. She promised to consider the positions of interest groups and legal analyses.

Deputy chairman of the committee Monika Haukanõmm said members want to thoroughly consider the effects of the bill before putting it to a vote. The committee has ordered surveys and analyses that should yield more independent results.

“We will see to which extent the restrictions entail constitutional infringement after which we will decide what kind of changes or adjustments we will make to the law,” Haukanõmm said.

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