Q&A: On Turkey's proposed alcohol restrictions

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Associated Press

Posted on May 24, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Updated Friday, May 24 at 2:35 PM

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A look at legislation passed in Turkey's parliament early Friday that would ban all alcohol advertising and tighten restrictions on the sale of such beverages, and how such a law could affect tourists and liquor companies in the mainly Muslim but secular country.

Q: What happened?

A: Tempers flared and scuffles broke out during an all-night legislative session that passed a bill proposed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party to ban all forms of advertising of alcohol — including the promotion of brands and logos — and the sale of alcoholic drinks in shops between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The legislation would prohibit alcohol sales within 100 meters (yards) of mosques and schools. Booze ads already are banned on television in Turkey, but the new law would force TV stations to blur the images of drinks shown anywhere on the screen, even during movies and soap operas. All liquor bottles would display warning signs about the harms of alcohol, and there would be stricter penalties on drunken driving.

The government says the measure would shield Turkey's youth from the harms of booze, but secular opponents charge it's another example of the governing party's encroachment on personal freedoms. The party has a majority in Parliament, and a walkout by the opposition allowed the bill to pass 193 to 4. President Abdullah Gul generally acts in accordance with the government, and he is expected to sign the bill into law.

Q: How would this affect tourists?

Probably not very much. Tourism is an important source of revenue for Turkey's booming economy, with more than 30 million foreigners visiting the country last year. In a bow to the industry, the bill makes clear that the ban on the sale of alcohol near schools and mosques wouldn't apply to establishments with tourist certificates. Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said that while shops couldn't sell alcohol between 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the ban wouldn't affect bars and restaurants, including the many located in hotels that tourists use. Open air bars and restaurants would continue to serve alcohol. As in many Muslim countries, nobody would walk down a street, or sit on a park bench, drinking booze in public and expect to get away with it. But drinking in the privacy of one's home or hotel room is common.

Q: Will the companies selling alcohol be affected?

A: Diageo, the London-based spirits company, acquired Turkey's drinks company, Mey Icki, in 2011, and it already has voiced concerns. In a statement released Thursday, Diageo said it is seeking talks with government officials for "fair, balanced and responsible" regulation, and that it bought the Turkish company believing it was investing in a country that encouraged foreign investments.

Q: What's the government's rationale?

A: Erdogan is a devout Muslim whose governing party is rooted in Turkey's Islamic movement. He insists he has no intention of banning alcohol, just to curtail its consumption, especially by youths. He insists he is committed to Turkey's secular policies and its goal of joining the European Union. He frequently quotes the Constitution as saying the nation is responsible for safeguarding young people from alcohol, drugs and gambling. "We don't want a generation walking around drunk night and day. We want a youth that is sharp and shrewd and full of knowledge," Erdogan said Friday in defense of the legislation.

Q: Why did secular parties oppose the legislation?

A: Secularists accuse the government of increasingly meddling in their lifestyles and imposing its conservative values on society. Some believe that Erdogan is trying to gradually impose an Islamic agenda. They claim that Turkey does not have an alcoholism problem and that only 1½ bottles of spirits are consumed per person, per year in Turkey on average, compared to 15 bottles in the West. They say that youths should instead be educated about the harms that alcohol can cause.

Q: What other legal changes have alarmed secularists?

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan's party has imposed high taxes on alcoholic beverages, banned all alcohol ads on TV, and barred alcohol consumption in parks and university campuses. Turkish Airlines, the national carrier, recently stopped serving alcoholic drinks on some of its flights.

The government also has repealed strict bans on the wearing of Islamic headscarves, lifted restrictions on religious schools and Quran courses, and said it aims to build "a generation" of devout Muslims. Last month, secularists criticized a court for punishing a pianist and composer for re-tweeting comments deemed to be insulting to religion by giving him a suspended prison sentence. An Armenian-Turkish journalist faces possible imprisonment for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Q: How do the restrictions compare to those in other Muslim nations?

A: Policies about alcohol vary widely from a complete ban in Saudi Arabia to relatively liberal rules in other countries.

In the United Arab Emirates, many resorts and hotels serve alcohol, and it is widely promoted in airport duty free shops and at public events. Non-Muslim residents of the UAE can buy liquor at special shops with a government-issued identity card.

The sale and consumption of alcohol in Egypt is legal but is allowed only to licensed dealers and tourist areas such as hotels, restaurants and bars. Egyptians are prohibited from buying alcoholic drinks anywhere during the holy month of Ramadan. The government of Mohammed Morsi, the country's first Islamist president, is considering a ban on the sale of alcohol in places such as airport duty-free stores.

In Libya, the sale and consumption of alcohol is banned, but Libyans turn to black market dealers.

Alcohol is also strictly banned in Afghanistan but smuggling is rife.

In Yemen, it is forbidden to sell or consume alcohol except for some places in the south that were former communist areas such as the port city of Aden.

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AP correspondents Brian Murphy in Dubai, Maggie Michael in Cairo, and Kay Johnson in Kabul contributed to this report.

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