HELSINKI – Finland's drinking problem is getting worse, souring relations with its European neighbors.
Around dinner time on a recent, unremarkable Wednesday, almost all of the 78 "drunk-tank" cells at Helsinki's Kisahalli jail were occupied. In one, a man lay on the floor, blathering obscenities and kicking the thick, hospital-green steel door. Unpleasant odors seeped through. Other cells had unconscious occupants, some passed out with limbs folded in awkward, origami-like poses.
"In Finland, if you drink, you drink a lot," says Marko Forss, a Helsinki police officer. "We are trying to [acquire] this European culture, but sipping wine, that's not so Finnish."
Finland's drinking habits have little in common with Mediterranean practices, creating a conflict between the country's struggle to control drinking and the European Union's drive for an integrated economic bloc. While EU rules allow each of the bloc's 25 states to set its own alcohol-tax rates, governments must allow individuals to carry as much booze as they want within the bloc's borders.
Under this pressure, Finland has loosened its ....
....... alcohol controls, precipitating a surge in alcohol-related disease and crime. Just before Estonia and other former Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries joined the EU in May 2004, Finland lowered its alcohol taxes – by 40% for spirits, 32% for beer and 6% for wine. Without these cuts, the country's lawmakers worried increasing numbers of Finns would take the short boat ride across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, Estonia's capital, to buy cheap liquor. Finland's treasury has lost about €300 million ($380 million) in annual income because of the tax cuts, but the government expected greater losses if a large chunk of its alcohol sales moved abroad.
Escalating public-health problems and rising crime rates have proved less easy to control. With open borders, domestic tax levels can no longer keep Finns from drinking too much – they can shop in Tallinn. Now the Finnish government, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, would like to raise alcohol taxes throughout the EU to help curb the country's drinking problem.
But other EU states, especially wine-drinking ones like France and Italy, oppose the move, says Tiina Maisala, a specialist on tax matters at Finland's mission to the EU. Instead, Europe's finance ministers in November will discuss a plan to ensure minimum alcohol taxes have increased in line with inflation since 1992, the last time rates were adjusted.
"In Italy, we don't have this problem with alcohol," said Marco Iuvinale, a tax expert at Italy's mission to the EU. "An excessive tax rate could introduce other problems, like a black market."
Alcohol consumption in some EU countries, including Italy and France, is as high, or even higher, than it is in Finland. But unlike Mediterranean countries, where a person might drink a half a bottle of wine every day, Finns drink less frequently, but consume larger quantities in a single sitting.
"Nordic societies have the patent on binge drinking," said Borje Olsson, head of the Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs at Stockholm University. "Because of that, we have more problems with alcohol-related violence than France."
Among its Nordic neighbors, Finland's problems seem more severe. Sweden has maintained its relatively high alcohol taxes, despite a rise in "alcohol tourism." But Swedes generally buy alcohol in Denmark, which also is at the higher end of the EU's alcohol-tax range. Sweden's drinking habits also have become more "European," with more people drinking beer and wine than the hard liquor favored by Finns, according to Mr. Olsson.
Lacking support from other EU countries, Finland's authorities are divided about what other steps to take. Minister of Social Affairs and Health Tuula Haatainen has advocated reraising alcohol taxes in 10% increments until consumption and crime are back under control. But the country's Finance Ministry, which is responsible for setting tax levels, has resisted making changes without EU-wide cooperation.
Even with lower taxes at home, liquor remains cheaper in neighboring countries. The Finnish government hoped the tax cuts would lure consumers back. Domestic alcohol sales have climbed 10% in the past two years. Sales of stronger spirits, including vodka, have risen more than 20%. But Finns' foreign-buying habits have confounded expectations and increased slightly, too – compounding the problem, says Ismo Tuominen, the top alcohol policy adviser to Finland's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.
The hangover is devastating. Alcohol-related deaths among middle-aged men rose 40% from 2003 to 2004, said Mr. Tuominen. Crime also is soaring. According to official statistics, there were 103 slayings in Finland in 2003, a low. The following year, after the tax cuts, there was a spike, with 144 slayings. That number fell to 114 last year, but still marked an 11% rise from the pretax-cut figure.
Other crimes also are on the rise. The number of drunken-driving offenses climbed to 26,063 in 2005 from 24,604 in 2003, and assaults rose to 30,327 from 28,022 for the same period. "Every crime indicator, drinking and driving, beating the wife, homicide...it all went up," Mr. Tuominen said.
Most Finns are resigned to dealing with the problems created by less-expensive alcohol. Many say if taxes are reraised, Finns will continue to drink too much. "The price of gasoline has gone up, too, but I don't see fewer cars on the road," says Mr. Forss, the Helsinki police officer.
The Wall Street Journal