While the official justification for restricting alcohol sales and advertisement in Turkey has always nominally been to protect public health, many seem to agree that the state’s Islamist/conservative leaders are imposing their politicized beliefs on others, and view alcohol regulations as interference into private life by a particular religious ideology.
The latest tax increase on alcoholic drinks from the beginning of this year is a case in point. It hit beer the hardest: While the special consumption tax on raki (Turkey's famous anis-flavored drink), vodka and gin rose to 10% and 9.97% for wine, it is 15.63% for beer, making Turkey's excise taxes some of the highest in Europe.
Using statistics from 2012, Ernst & Young produced a report on the contribution of the beer sector to Turkey’s economy. In 2012, the total revenue from excise taxes, VAT and income-related contributions due to beer production and sales was estimated at 2.06 billion euros ($2.85 billion).
Considering the tougher legislation, it is no surprise that Turkey's biggest brewer and SAB Miller partner Anadolu Efes expects the new restrictions on alcohol to limit the growth of the country's beer industry.
In August 2013, there was still a perception that alcohol consumption in the country was unaffected by the restrictions on it. Economist Mustafa Sonmez observed, “Particularly young consumers who can’t afford raki are continuing to drink beer. With the spur of tourist visits, it seems that consumption isn't falling, but rather surging.”
Yet on April 2, four months after closing two breweries in Russia, Anadolu Efes, Turkey’s biggest brewer, announced the decision to shut down the Luleburgaz factory in the northwestern province of Kirklareli due to declining sales. The company announced it would continue its production at other existing plants. Due to tougher regulations and higher taxes, the beer market in Turkey reportedly shrank by 12% in 2013.
In 2012, annual consumption of beer per capita was 13.2 liters (3.5 gallons). The EU average is 72.2 liters (19 gallons), making beer consumption in Turkey very low compared to EU member states. In the EU, a drop in beer sales has put nonalcoholic drinks in the spotlight.
“Why are sales of nonalcoholic beer booming?” asked The Economist, reporting that 2.2 billion liters of nonalcoholic beer were consumed around the world in 2012, 80% more than five years earlier. But consumption trends vary across regions. Increasing awareness of health and wellness drives the demand in the West, while Euromonitor notes, “The cultural context in [the Middle East and North Africa] is the key determinant of product positioning and consumer perception of nonalcoholic beer.”
In another article, The Economist states that the Middle East now accounts for almost a third of worldwide sales by volume of nonalcoholic beer. In Iran, alcohol consumption is now reportedly four times as high as in 2007. Iran has Delster, brewed by Behnoush, and Barbican, produced by Aujan, is successfully promoted as a malt-based soft drink and popular in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Others include Laziza in Lebanon, along with Birell, Fayrouz and Moussy.
In Muslim countries in the Middle East, according to The Economist, growth in the sales of nonalcoholic beer is seen as the result of not only "growing consumer aspirations” but also a “glamorous image” and smart packaging.
Yet in Turkey, many people consider nonalcoholic beer a no-no. Turkish Efes Pilsen presented its version at the beginning of 2000, but had little success. The company decided to try again and presented nonalcoholic beer anew in 2011. When I asked a Turkish friend in Istanbul about it, he responded, “I have never seen nonalcoholic beer in a shop, but I was told it exists.”
I asked him, “If you offered your friends a nonalcoholic beer, what would they say?”
He responded, “My religiously conservative friend would want to double check to make sure it has no alcohol, and only then maybe drink it, but wouldn’t be pleased. My secular friend would drink it and ask for a ‘real’ beer when it’s finished.”
In Turkey, any discussion on alcohol must be understood within the history of the country’s modernization. As anthropologist Jenny White writes in her book Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, “A sip of whisky, like a drop of blood, is a highly charged cultural marker of social class, lifestyle and political values.” So alcohol consumption (“a practice given the status of a sacred tradition, intrinsically bound to the authority of Ataturk, himself a raki enthusiast,” adds White) is not only a marker of piety (or lack thereof) but also a major part of one’s identity. It's no wonder that until recently, it was whispered that the secular Turkish military did not promote officers who refrained from alcohol.
In Turkey, opinions on whether nonalcoholic beer is halal differ greatly. Renowned Islamic scholar Abdulaziz Bayindir has opined that nonalcoholic beer could be halal. Yet, discordant explanations cite dated “facts” that a 1-1.5% alcohol content is still present in these drinks. Psychiatrist Nevzat Tarhan stated for the conservative Zaman that nonalcoholic drinks also represent a gateway to alcohol addiction. In 2012, Muharrem Balci, then the president of Turkey’s “Green Crescent Society,” a nongovernmental organization that campaigns against alcohol, tobacco, drug, gambling and technology addiction, put the beverage advertised as nonalcoholic beer to the test. Laboratory results showed an alcohol content of 0.26%, which strengthened the argument that nonalcoholic beer was a trap designed by producers and a shameless advertising tactic to gradually lure young people into alcohol consumption. Reported complaints about endangered youth led authorities to regulate nonalcoholic drinks, from labeling to advertising.
In 2012, the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority prepared a law to prevent drinks like nonalcoholic beer from being sold at all under that name. It called for further work on regulations and a change in the name “nonalcoholic beer” to “fermented malt beverage.” The law was ratified by parliament in May 2013. Additional regulations in August 2013 also demanded different-colored packaging for nonalcoholic beverages and clearly visible signs showing any presence or a complete lack of alcohol. The same brand and logo of alcoholic beverages is not to be used for nonalcoholic beverages.
On this issue, like many others, it is important to note the variety of interpretations among countries with large Muslim populations. In 2011, Malaysia's National Fatwa Council ruled that the United Arab Emirate's nonalcoholic beer Barbican was permissible for Muslims, as “the drink was not processed to make it alcoholic and the alcohol content was incidental.” Some make a case for greater involvement by Malaysia in the business, as trends predict an increase in demand for nonalcoholic beer. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore decreed that nonalcoholic beer is not halal. Yet, prominent Saudi and Egyptian clerics have issued fatwas declaring it permissible to drink zero-alcohol beer, reasoning, “If a large quantity of a given drink intoxicates, then a small quantity of that drink is forbidden. Conversely, if a large quantity of that drink does not intoxicate, then that drink is not forbidden.”
During my recent visit to Mecca in Saudia Arabia, I was stunned to see so many kinds of nonalcoholic beer in supermarkets and excitedly took a photo to show back home. Back in Turkey, consuming nonalcoholic beer is legally banned and seen as a faux pas, either a flaky expression of one’s secularist beliefs or an absolute breach of explicit religious edicts.
Turkish history dictates that one express one's identity loudly and clearly. In today’s highly polarized Turkey, consuming alcohol, therefore, seems bound to remain a clear line of demarcation between different identities. This would be less problematic if only the notion of “freedom to sin,” along with the freedom to chose to live a very conservative life, is fully respected both by the state and society.
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