Finland calls time on drunk awaydays

Thousands of thirsty Finns packed ferry boats to Estonia yesterday to stock up on duty free drink ahead of tough new import restrictions due to come into force today.

According to a representative of the Tallinn Ferry company in Helsinki, all four crossings to Tallinn were fully booked as customers sought to take advantage of the old regulations one final time. "We have been fantastically busy in the days leading up to the new rules," said the representative. "And it is pretty clear why people have been going across."

Since Estonia regained its independence in 1991, it has become a magnet for heavy drinkers from Finland seeking to avoid the country's 65 per cent tax levy.

Gangs of drunken Finnish revellers have become a regular sight in the streets of Tallinn and journeys home on ferry boats and even planes are seldom made without the maximum allowances of spirits, wines and beers.

Under the new regulations, the import of duty free alcohol into Finland will now be possible only if at least 20 hours has been spent out of the country. The immediate targets will be the day-trippers to Tallinn and nearby Russia, where even greater bargains on alcohol are to be found.

The law will also restrict sales of duty free alcohol within Finland itself. This will be aimed primarily at Russians who have been entering the country with truck loads of elicit liquor to sell off to eager takers at impromptu market places which have been dubbed "Red Squares".

The combined effect of "alcohol tourism" and the "Red Squares" has been to slice 1bn markka (pounds 140m) from annual tax revenues channelled through Alko, the State company which has a monopoly on alcohol sales in Finland.