Q&A on the comprehensive reform of the Alcohol Act
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health requests that all comments concerning the Government proposal for the Alcohol Act be submitted by 16/01/2017. The Government proposal on the Alcohol Act is to be submitted to the Parliament in the spring session of 2017.
A number of frequently asked questions and answers have been compiled below.
Why is the Alcohol Act being reformed?
Finland's alcohol legislation consists of the Alcohol Act from 1994 and the 13 Decrees laid down based on the Act. The Act and the Decrees laid down on the basis of the Act will be combined in reform as comprehensively as possible into one law.
The reform is also related to the Government's deregulation project. The current act contains some outdated and cumbersome norms from the previous Spirits Act (Väkiviinalaki) of 1932 and Alcohol Act of 1969.
What is the basis for the reform?
The reform is being made in an effort to strike a balance between reducing the negative public health impacts of alcohol and taking the needs of the related industry into consideration.
The primary principle of the act remains: "... to prevent detrimental societal, social and health effects caused by alcoholic substances by controlling the consumption of alcohol." The basis of the reform includes maintaining Alko's current retail monopoly. Norms concerning the retail sale of alcoholic beverages and licensing system for serving alcoholic beverages will also be maintained,
and any unnecessary, outdated or rigid norms, particularly those that burden the restaurant sector, will be dismantled. Norms concerning serving hours and customer service at restaurants and bars would be eased.
How has the Government overseen preparation of the comprehensive reform of the Alcohol Act?
The political preparation of the comprehensive Alcohol Act reform began in February 2016 by the Sipilä Government, when Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Juha Rehula presented his preliminary proposal to the Ministerial Working Group for the promotion of health and welfare. The preliminary proposal sought a balance between reducing the negative impacts of alcohol and taking into account the related industry.
The coalition parties' parliamentary groups then discussed the preliminary proposal and, during further talks, representatives of the groups agreed on certain policies on alcohol legislation on 19 May 2016. During September, the government's ministerial working group on well-being and health has reassessed the legislative reform.
The draft circulated for comments was submitted to the Ministerial Working Group for the promotion of health and welfare at the beginning of November 2016.
What is the timetable for the preparation of the Alcohol Act?
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health requests that all comments concerning the Government proposal for the Alcohol Act be submitted by 16 January 2017. After this, the Ministry will draft a summary of the comments, correct and revise the proposal as needed and finalise its impact assessment.
The proposal must be submitted to the Legislation Assessment Council before being submitted to Parliament. After this, the Government's proposal for the new Alcohol Act will be submitted to Parliament during the spring session 2017. The entry into force of the Alcohol Act will be decided on during a parliamentary session.
Simultaneously with circulation for comments, a notification procedure for the Alcohol Act will be initiated, in which the European Commission and other Member States will assess whether the proposed legislation is compatible with EU law. The procedure will last no longer than six months. The Alcohol Act may not be approved in Finland prior to completion of this notification procedure.
How has the reform been prepared?
The reform was prepared by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in close co-operation with the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira) and the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL). Expert assistance was provided by other ministries, particularly the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Employment and the Economy and Ministry of Finance.
During preparation of the reform, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health organised separate meetings with the Federation of the Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry, Finnish Microbreweries' Association, vineyard entrepreneurs, Alcoholic Beverages Industries Association, Association of Finnish Alcoholic Beverage Suppliers, Majoitus- ja ravitsemispalvelut ry (Hospitality management services), Finnish Grocery Trade Association (PTY), Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention (EHYT) administrative bodies, member working groups and key persons.
How are the impacts of the reform being assessed?
The draft contains preliminary estimates of, for example, its economic and health impacts. These impacts will be specified in greater detail based on the comments made. Experts can still be commissioned to conduct impact assessments.
What is the most significant change being made to the retail sale of alcoholic beverages?
At present, the retail sale of alcoholic beverages is limited to beverages which are produced through fermentation and have an alcoholic strength by volume of no higher than 4.7%. In the future, the maximum strength by volume of alcoholic beverage sold in retail stores would be increased to 5.5%, and the requirement that the beverage is prepared through fermentation would be eliminated. This would mean that grocery stores, convenience stores and service stations would be able to begin selling IVA beers, stronger ciders and all long drinks made using spirits.
What will happen to Alko's monopoly status?
Alko will retain its current retail monopoly. Alko is a government-owned limited liability company, which currently holds the exclusive rights to sell alcoholic beverages produced by fermentation with a strength by volume of more than 4.7%. The exceptions to this are currently wines sold at vineyards and producer-sold sahti (a primitive ale).Under the new act, Alko would have the exclusive right to sell alcoholic beverages with a strength by volume of more than 5.5%. Exceptions to this would include wines sold at vineyards, sahti and now also"craft beers".
What provisions are there for the sale of small-scale vineyard wines, sahti and beer?
The right for producers of vineyard wines and sahti to sell their products directly at the place of production would remain the same. Vineyard wines are any alcoholic beverages with a strength by volume of more than 13 per cent made by fermentation from berries, fruits and other parts of plants, excluding grain products and grapes.
A new addition to the Alcohol Act would involve "craft beers", whose producers would be permitted to sell directly at the place of production. A microbrewery product (craft beer) would basically be considered a moderately fermented alcoholic beverage with a strength by volume of no more than 12 per cent. This definition would also include, for example, maize and other beers and the use of other parts of plants and seasoning in fermentation. According to the current definition, sahti would be considered an unfiltered and unpasteurised craft beer with a strength by volume of at least 6 per cent and at most 12 per cent.
The production limit for vineyard wines would remain unchanged (100,000 litres), but the production limit for a microbrewery would be 500,000 litres per year. Producers must be independent.
These limits are set based on the fact that exceptions to Alko's retail monopoly must not be excessive. An effort has been made to keep the exceptions limited, traditional or craft. This is done in an effort to ensure that small-scale sales will not exclude wine and beer producers from other EU member states. This is based on a ruling made by the European Court of Justice (C-198/2014 Visnapuu), which addresses, among others, exceptions related to the retail sales of vineyard wines.
Is it possible to purchase alcohol for take-away at a restaurant?
Licensed premises may sell alcoholic beverages for customers to take away in the same manner as stores. The sale of alcoholic beverages to customers is subject to normal retail sales norms. These include the specified maximum strength by volume of alcoholic beverages (5.5%) and hours for retail sales (9:00am–9:00pm).
Can alcohol be purchased online from sources outside Finland?
The current norms concerning the foreign online sale of alcoholic beverages, i.e. cross-border distance selling, are ambiguous. This situation will be clarified in the new Alcohol Act, thus prohibiting cross-border distance selling. In practice, the prohibition would mean that a seller located outside of Finland would not be permitted to sell alcoholic beverages to consumers in Finland.
The case addressed in the European Court of Justice (C-98/2014 Visnapuu), approving an interpretation related to the distance selling of alcohol, has been taken into consideration in the Government proposal for the new act. According to the interpretation, the prohibition concerning the cross-border distance selling of alcoholic beverages stated in the current Finnish Alcohol Act is in line with the European Court of Justice ruling, under certain conditions. The national court must, for example, determine whether the existing right to sell vineyard wines is limited to the extent that the Finnish retail trade system will not exclude producers from other countries.
Can consumers still purchase alcoholic beverages from abroad?
According to the case law of the EU Court of Justice, a Member State cannot prohibit consumers from importing alcoholic beverages for personal consumption. According to the EU Court of Justice, import for personal consumption is permitted if the person ordering the goods or a person unconnected to the seller transports the alcoholic beverages. The ban on distance selling is based on two principles: First, online stores operating outside Finland are banned from sending alcoholic beverages to Finland. Secondly, the situations in which consumers could purchase alcoholic beverages from abroad would be specified in the law drafting phase. A crucial point is that the transport service is unconnected to the seller of alcoholic beverages.
Will mobile grocery stores begin selling alcohol now?
Mobile grocery stores currently in use will be included in the new Alcohol Act. The new act will also permit Alko to sell alcoholic beverages from mobile stores. In both cases, the mobile store route should serve both permanent and seasonal residents as well as be approved by the license authority. In other words, mobile stores selling alcoholic beverages could serve, for example, festivals and public events or deliver alcoholic beverages to customer homes.
What are the biggest changes to the serving of alcoholic beverages?
Restaurant and bar opening hours are provided for in the current Act on Accommodation and Food Service Operations (308/2006). In the reform, restaurant and bar opening hours would be left to the discretion of the business, as was done with store opening hours at the beginning of 2016.
Under the Alcohol Act, serving hours currently end at 1:30am. Restaurants and bars apply for a licence from the Regional State Administrative Agencies for extended serving hours until 2.30am or 3.30am, if they have special reasoning. A restaurant or bar must close half an hour after serving hours have ended.
In the future, serving hours would still end at 1:30am, but a restaurant or bar could continue to serve alcohol until 4:00am at the latest by just submitting a notification on the matter. The closing requirement would be eliminated, but alcoholic beverages purchased on the premises must be consumed within one hour of the end of serving hours. License procedure would be eliminated, but restaurants and bars would have new requirements for maintaining public order. Additionally, authorities would have the right when necessary to limit or prohibit serving of alcoholic beverages to prevent disturbances and disorder.
At present, the licenses for serving alcoholic beverages are A, B and C. The A license is for all alcoholic beverages, B is for wines and C is for alcoholic beverages with a strength by volume of no more than 4.7%. In the future, a single license will allow the sale of all alcoholic beverages.
Will the requirements for personnel at premises serving alcohol be changed?
Currently, each restaurant or bar must have a "responsible manager or substitute" present, who must meet with specific training and experience requirements. In the future, there would need to be an adult manager present during each shift, but no specific criteria for his/her competence would be specified. Instead, each employee who has worked at the restaurant or bar for more than three months will be required to hold a certification approved by the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira). This "Alcohol Passport" is proof that the employee knows the basic provisions of the Alcohol Act.
At present, restaurant and bar staff must be at least 18 years of age with the exception of waiter students, who must have turned 16. In the future, persons who are 16 years of age could serve alcohol under the supervision of the shift manager.
What changes will be made to alcohol serving areas?
Currently, serving areas shared by several restaurants are prohibited. Under the new act, shared serving areas may be permitted. So-called catering permits would allow restaurants and bars to serve alcoholic beverages in pre-approved business premises, the area's party venues and festivals after they have submitted notice of this to the Regional State Administrative Agency.
Will Alko's opening hours be deregulated?
No. Currently, Alko stores are open Monday to Friday 9:00am-8:00pm. The opening hours will be extended by one hour to 9:00pm, i.e. the same time as stores. Alko stores would have the right to organise i.e. wine auctions.
Wine auctions are events where wines are sold to the highest bidder in a conventional auction format. The store often carries high-priced vintage wines or other rarities. Until now, these types of auctions have been held in, for example, Sweden, but not in Finland.
Will norms concerning the advertising of alcoholic beverages be changed?
The reform of norms concerning the advertising of alcoholic beverages was started at the beginning of 2015. The basis of this reform was that advertising norms would not be changed at this time.
One exception would be to allow restaurants and bars to advertise "happy hour" discounts.
Currently, only Alko and other retailers are permitted to publish printed or online price listings for spirits. In the future, producers, wholesalers and restaurants would also be permitted to present their own products, for example in online price lists.
Am I eligible to receive rebates or bonuses when I buy alcohol products?
No. A new restriction on the purchase of alcoholic beverages is that rebates may no longer be offered or accepted as payment. A similar norm is in place for tobacco products. In practice, this would mean that alcohol product purchases would not earn the customer any store bonuses. This norm would also apply to alcoholic beverages purchased abroad and on ships.
Will the norms concerning the production of beer and home-made wine change?
Currently, beer and wine can only be produced in homes from a limited variety of raw materials. Under the new act, the home production of beer and wine would be permitted, provided that production does not involve distilling.