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9 Feb, 2009 08:03

Cheap booze is killing Finns

Alcohol is Finland’s biggest killer, claiming more lives than either cancer or heart disease. Doctors say it’s time to limit access to cheap booze.

On average, a Finn drinks about 10 litres of alcohol a year. That is the highest in the Nordic countries and on a par with France.

Health officials say the trend can’t continue. They say the problem lies in easy access to cheap alcohol from neighboring EU member states. Kari Paaso from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health says this does not sit well with the nation’s drinking habits.

“We have such detrimental drinking habits, detrimental to health,” he said. “We drink to get drunk.”

In the past, the government kept a tight control on alcohol sales to counteract this Finnish trait. But this was eased in the 1970s.

Now, although there are still tough licensing laws, the government is trying to attract Finns to buying drink at home and not abroad.

As prices are very low across the water in Estonia, the Finnish authorities decided to drop excise duty by about 40 per cent. Now alcohol prices in Finland are at their lowest for 10 years.

This has begun a vicious circle. With less tax money coming into the exchequer, fewer funds are available to treat health issues, including alcohol addiction.

At the same time, alcohol consumption in the country has more than doubled in the past decade.

Some experts say Finnish society remains unconcerned about the problem.

Pekka Tuomola from the Helsinki Deaconess Institute says that “Finnish society is realizing that drug addiction is a serious problem.”

However, she says, “most young Finns today are not heavy drug addicts, they drink a lot of alcohol. It’s certainly a great problem for our society.”

Health experts say that the authorities are beginning to address the issue.

Researcher Esa Osterberg said the country planned to “raise taxes by 10 per cent next year…If we are not increasing alcohol taxes there is no reason why people should decrease drinking.”

Although the situation appears grim, statistics suggest that Finnish youngsters are drinking less than the previous generation.

Specialists hope that tougher new taxes and the economic crisis will force Finns to drink less.

But whether it will be enough to reform a nation’s ingrained drinking culture remains uncertain.