ANKARA, Turkey – Turkish lawmakers on Thursday began debating a bill that bans all alcohol advertising and tightens restrictions on sales of such beverages — a proposal the government insists is aimed at protecting the young from the ills of spirits but which secularists say is an example of the Islamic-based ruling party's encroachment on personal freedoms.
The proposal bars the sale of alcohol anywhere within 100 meters (yards) of mosques, schools and other educational centers, which could lead to the eventual cancellation of several establishments' alcohol licenses. Advertising alcoholic products in any form would also be banned, and there would be stricter penalties for drunken driving.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim whose ruling party is rooted in Turkey's Islamist movement, has made no secret of his aim to curtail alcohol consumption in this predominantly Muslim, but secular country, saying it is his constitutional duty to protect the well-being of the young.
Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
Since coming to power in 2002, the ruling party has imposed high taxes on alcoholic beverages, banned television ads and forbidden drink companies from sponsoring sports events. Turkish Airlines, the country's national carrier, recently stopped serving alcoholic drinks on some of its flights.
Secular opponents of the bill say Erdogan — who is sometimes accused of authoritarian tendencies — is increasingly meddling in more liberal lifestyles. They say the measure is an affront to personal choices, and some accuse his ruling party of trying to gradually impose an Islamic agenda.
"No one can be forced to drink or not to drink. This is a religious and ideological imposition," Musa Cam, a legislator from the secular, main opposition party said in a speech in Parliament. "This is not a struggle against the ills of alcohol but is an attempt to re-design the society according to their belief and lifestyle."
Under the bill, alcohol companies would no longer be allowed to promote their brands and logos, while all liquor bottles sold in Turkey would display warning signs about the harms of alcohol, similar to those found on cigarette packages.
London-based spirits company, Diageo, which acquired Turkey's leading drinks company, Mey Icki, in 2011, released a statement Thursday saying that it shares the government's concerns about alcohol consumption but that it was seeking a meeting with officials to "present alternative views" on "fair, balanced and responsible" regulation.
The company added that it had bought Mey Icki believing it was investing in a country "that encouraged foreign investments."
Erdogan frequently cites Turkey's constitution in saying that the state is responsible for protecting the young from alcohol, drugs and gambling and insists he is committed to secular politics and to Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
In a conference addressing policies on alcohol in April, Erdogan caused an uproar by declaring that ayran, a watered-down yogurt drink, was Turkey's national drink, contrary to the widely held belief that raki — an aniseed-based alcoholic drink — was the nation's traditional beverage.