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Wednesday's papers: Finland's deceptive alcohol import policy, results of municipal mergers, and homelessness

Finland's print press discusses a proposed all-out ban on alcohol imports, disappointing financial and social results of 2009 municipal mergers, and successful programmes tackling homelessness.

Täytyykö valtion valmistaa viinaa? Valtiollisen alkoholiyhtiön Altian pörssilistautumista on uumoiltu jo pitkään. Kuvassa Rajamäen viinatehdas.
A warehouse of Finland's alcohol monopoly Alko. Image: Mauri Ratilainen / AOP

Helsingin Sanomat takes a look this Wednesday at the government proposal for a New Alcohol Act, which among other things will supposedly prohibit all 'distance sales' - the purchase of online and mail order alcohol products from abroad - if approved by Parliament.

Lawyer Petteri Snell tells HS that the whole thing is a snow job, as the bill's wording says that no amendments would be proposed to the current provision on cross-border distance sales of alcoholic beverages, so "distance sales would still be prohibited".

"In reality, Finland's current Alcohol Act does not prohibit distance sales. The ban simply reflects the decision of a few civil servants to gradually impose a stricter interpretation of the law," he says. 

Snell recently defended an Estonian entrepreneur who was given a half-year suspended prison sentence for tax fraud. In his preparation for the so-called 'Alko Tax' case, Snell examined 20 years of paperwork on the law and found no evidence of a ban on distance sales.

"The corniest thing about it all is that the [social affairs and health] ministry has known this the whole time. Their interpretation of the situation has just slowly become more prohibitive, so now the bill states that it has always been banned," Snell tells HS. 

Finland's current Alcohol Act came into effect in early 1995, the same year the country joined the European Union. One of the most important principles of the union was the free movement of goods and people, and so the European Commission soon had a bone to pick with Finland about its strict alcohol monopoly. In 1996, the ministry told the EC that Finnish legislation did not prohibit Finns from buying alcohol from other EU countries, and a later 2001 working group confirmed this freedom.

But then things started to turn, until the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health Valvira took it upon itself in 2006 to interpret the law to mean a total ban. "Import for personal use" was now understood to mean only transactions in which consumers bring the drinks back from abroad themselves. Now the cross-border purchase of alcohol products is allowed only if the consumer pays for the pre-paid products' transfer to Finland.

"This means that the consumer has to pay taxes twice: once in the country of purchase and then again in Finland. This double taxation is against EU principles and prevents the unfettered movement of goods," Tomi Salonen, editor of Finland's Wine magazine, tells HS.

Mergers bring no savings

The newspaper Keskisuomalainen out of Jyväskylä in central Finland examines the result of a string of  municipal mergers that came into effect in 2009. It says that a new VATT Institute for Economic Research study concludes that the mergers did not affect total municipal expenditures, but did bring major changes to local service networks.

In 2009, 32 municipal mergers took place involving 99 cities and towns in Finland. Six years on, the VTT researchers found that the consolidation did not cut costs as had been hoped, as the expenditures in the merged areas were almost identical to control areas without the change. 

Instead the report found rising inequality in social and health care services, as jobs in these areas were moved to the larger municipalities in the mergers. This development was linked to poorer political representation on the local councils affected.

Research leader Tuukka Saarimaa tells KS that VATT's finding should be taken into consideration in the government's plan to create large regional administration bodies as part of its flagship social and health care reform. 

The VATT report found that the increasing heterogeneity in social and health care services was not reflected in the overall wellbeing of the local residents, however.

“This somewhat surprising result could be explained by the fact that although the social and health care services of smaller municipalities were moved further away, the services are now available in larger and perhaps higher quality units. In addition, the mergers did not affect the accessibility of services used on a daily basis, such as the location of schools,” Saarimaa said.

Homelessness awareness

And the tabloid Iltalehti reports on homelessness in Finland, on the heels of Finland's "Night of the Homeless", an event arranged on Tuesday by several charities to call attention to the problem.

The tabloid visits the Hietaniemenkatu service centre in Helsinki, and meets Jouko, who has lived there since April. IL says Jouko ended up homeless in the same way many Finnish men end up on the streets: after a divorce.  As of September 2017, 520 people without a home were queuing in Helsinki for a housing allowance. 172 more homeless were receiving services at various mental health facilities.

Governments in Finland have included the fight against homelessness in their programmes since 1999. By 2008, most people sleeping rough had been given permanent housing, based on a successful Housing First model, but long-term homeless with difficult social and health problems are still hard to reach.

Eero has come out for the Night of the Homeless event at the Hietaniemi centre. He is one of the lucky ones, because he was just offered city housing. "I used to live in Vantaa, but then my relationship ended and I came here," he tells IL.

Eero first came to the centre in March of 2016, where he slept in one of the 52 beds in the basement. The ground floor of the facility features temporary apartments, where Jouko now lives. Eero says the toughest part about being homeless is finding the motivation to turn things around and get a place to live. Jouko says growing numbers of angry young people on the streets are a worry. 

"Those kids in their twenties are ruining their life," Jouko tells the paper. "They're always spoiling for a fight, too. That's why I'm missing a couple teeth; I tried to give them some advice."

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