Without sounding trivial or trite, one can say that alcohol has played a large role in the history of the Baltic states and continues to do so. Drinking, whether it is personal, social or even work-related, remains a major part of life in the three countries. Already heavily imbibing nations, the 50 years of Soviet occupation only intensified the drinking habits of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians; as with other victims of Soviet rule, from Russians to Georgians, the Balts drank themselves to what the author Vitali Vasiliev has called a state of "oblivion" to avoid the realities of drab Soviet life.
However, most people concerned with the state of alcohol in the Baltics are worried not about the quality and choice but about the quantity of consumption. Last year's exceedingly hot summer caused a myriad of problems, ranging from increased alcohol-assisted beach drowning accidents to high-profile drink-drive cases
Overall, there seems to be less attention paid to alcohol-related problems in the Baltic states. There is no strong temperance movement as there is in Finland, where alcoholism has been called the national disease. Toasting a sunny afternoon in one of Riga's squares with several beers or getting absolutely legless during an evening sauna session in Tartu is considered absolutely normal behaviour. Nevertheless, the level of consumption has caused the usual inevitable problems such as drink-drive accidents, illness due to high intake of alcohol and domestic problems. Drink-drive is especially prevelant, despite the no-tolerance rules in the three countries. At least in Tallinn, the city is inundated with reliable taxis (unlike Riga or Vilnius), though such phenomena as having a designated driver or leaving one's car in town and cabbing home are still not common practice. Many Vilnius bars actually have breathalysers, but whether they are used is another question.
The availability of alcohol has undoubtedly contributed to the problem of high consumption. The overbearing restrictions on alcohol in the United States and the questionable drinking hours in Britain are not the solution; however, the vast availability of alcohol is, in many cases, just plain scary. Most of the 24-hour shops at petrol stations sell alcohol - including vodka - and even have bottle openers on-site. Often, attendants do not think twice before selling an open bottle of beer to someone after filling up his car with petrol. So it is especially remarkable that in Estonia the Statoil petrol station chain finally banned the sale of alcohol at its many locations in May.
There are also some alarming bar locations. For example, in Tallinn, there is a bar called "Parking Lot Bar" on the premises of a car park for commuters working in large office buildings in that area. One can't help but ask: Is that not a blatant challenge to drink-drive restrictions? And which authority issued the license to that business, knowing full well its implications?A booming business
Exports have been growing as well. Estonian beers are often bought in bulk by Finnish tourists alongside their normal hoards of Koff beers. However, alcohol from this part of the world can be found all over the globe; many consumers in Washington, DC, think "sa-KU" beer is Japanese - a case of marketing success and failure rolled into one. Various vodkas from the Baltic countries can be found anywhere from your San Francisco corner grocery store to speciality shops in Chelsea.
Authorities are also fighting back against the free-for-all alcohol trade. In several municipalities in Latvia, sale of alcoholic beverages has been banned after 11pm. The example set by the northern city of Valmiera has become a model that has caught the interest of many members of Parliament. During special events and some notorious holidays (such as the horrific Volbriöö on the evening of 30 April), Tallinn places severe restrictions on sales of alcohol, and open-container laws come into effect. Talk of installing an open-container law in the university town of Tartu naturally caused uproar amongst students. But moves such as banning hard-alcohol sales near bodies of water are positive steps, in light of a record number of drownings in Lithuania in 1999.
However, the noisiest issue involving alcohol remains that of illegal trade. Most of the media coverage of this subject involves complaints of lost excise from the black market and smuggled alcohol (a common problem near border areas, ranging from Valga to Dover) and the methods of dealing with
Drinking will always remain an important part of the culture and social life of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as it is all over Europe and most of the world. Draconian anti-alcohol policies, like those found in the United States. would not solve the problem; neither can an alcohol culture distilled over generations change to a more benevolent Italian model overnight. However, with a bit more awareness, the people of the Baltics will be able to continue to enjoy their alcohol, while maintaing a healthier, safer and probably happier society.
Mel Huang, 5 June 2000