Europe Making Sweden Ease Alcohol
By SUZANNE DALEY
New York Times, March 28,
STOCKHOLM, March 23: For decades, Sweden's
liquor stores were few and far between and had the
look of hospital pharmacies. They closed by 6 on
weekdays and never opened on weekends. Choice was
limited and prices high.
Bottles were displayed inside glass cases.
Customers took numbers--and waited.
These measures were imposed to discourage the
consumption of alcohol in a nation with a tradition
of drinking to the point of drunkenness and a
history of abuse going back to the miseries of
19th-century industrialization, when cheap liquor
led to widespread abuse.
But piece by piece, Sweden is being forced to
take apart its anti-alcohol policies because most
violate the European Union's rules of fair
competition. Some liquor stores are open late
and on Saturdays. A few have been remade into
cheerfully decorated self-service stores. And wine
lovers can delight in a wide selection.
The tax on beer is down. The tax on wine is
expected to follow, and some say that even the high
taxes on hard liquor will go eventually. Even
restrictions that do not have to go, like the high
taxes, are being undermined by open borders.
Heading into the weekend, it is easy enough to
find young Swedes in liquor stores who applaud
these changes and say that their country is finally
catching up with the rest of the world. But it is
easy too to find Swedes who are deeply concerned
over the changes and worried that the years of
controlling consumption through state-owned
monopolies and high taxes have not really cured
this nation of bad drinking habits.
Some contend that if Swedish voters had fully
understood how entry into the European Union would
loosen the state's grip on alcohol, the country
might not have joined. Alcohol consumption is on
the rise, and some worry how far it will go.
Already Swedish officials say the country has a
growing black market in liquor. Near Sweden's
southern border, pensioners are making extra cash
by driving back and forth from Denmark with their
trunks full of untaxed beer.
"I'm just not sure that Sweden is ready for
this," said Sonia Ostergen, the manager of the
state's dreary liquor store in the Stockholm suburb
of Sundbyber. "Cheaper beer and wine, maybe. But I
don't think it should be easier to get hard liquor.
We all know people who have problems. "
Experts say that what is happening in Sweden
over alcohol policy is in many ways a prime example
of the difficulties the European Union faces as it
tries to extend its reach and harmonize
policies. Stretching from freezing climates to
desert regions and incorporating vastly different
cultures, the union is seeing that what may be a
market commodity in one country is a health issue
"On this issue, we can't even really understand
each other," said Dr. Gunar Agren, the executive
manager of Sweden's National Institute of Health.
"We just see things very differently and in fact we
have different problems with alcohol.
"Here we come from a tradition of drinking where
people beat each other up and even get killed over
drinking. You talk to the Italians and they don't
see that. Drinking has been a part of their way of
life for 1,000 years and they think young people
need to be taught to drink."
During the worst period of abuse in Sweden in
the mid-1800's, the country had more than 175,000
distilling machines for a population of about eight
million, and consumption was estimated at almost 49
quarts of alcohol per adult per year compared with
about 9.5 today. Finally, the labor movement and
the temperance movement converged, embracing
slogans like "You cannot stagger to freedom," which
were popular in the United States too.
These social forces gave birth to measures that
were unimaginable in southern European countries
like France and Italy. For nearly 40 years, until
1955, Swedes had to have ration cards to buy
liquor. When Sweden voted to join the European
Union in 1995, the government still had a monopoly
on production and both wholesale and retail
distribution of spirits, which allowed it to keep
prices high and availability low. A 700 milliliter
bottle of Beefeater gin costs about $12 in France,
about $32 in Sweden.
Experts say that the strictures were effective
in reducing drinking.
But they did little to reshape Sweden's real
problem: the way in which people view alcohol.
While southern Europeans tend to incorporate
drinking with eating and find outward signs of
intoxication embarrassing, the tradition in Sweden,
and other Scandinavian countries, is to drink less
often but with the intention of getting drunk.
While their southern counterparts have more
long-term health problems that are associated with
drinking, the Swedish drinking pattern leads to
high rates of violence, accidents, suicide,
homicide and addiction, experts say.
The way beer is labeled demonstrates the
difference in attitudes. Finding the alcohol
content on most beers produced in Europe is a
question of searching out the fine print. Most
hover at about 5 percent.
The alcohol content of Swedish beer varies
widely, ranging up to 10 percent, and the numbers
are usually emblazoned on the cans in bigger
lettering than the brand name.
"The Nordic style of drinking is problematic,"
said Robin Room, an alcoholism expert at the Center
for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs. "People
here value intoxication. You hear people here say
they are going to get drunk this weekend, which you
do not hear in southern European countries. In the
south, they drink, in many cases, more, but it is a
quiet problem. Here it produces very public social
As Sweden has been forced to rethink its
approach to the issue, it has been able to
negotiate over some of the changes Europe requires.
While it has had to give up its monopoly on
production and wholesale distribution of alcohol,
it has been able to keep its monopoly on retail
stores as long as it makes more products available
and expands store hours.
It was also able to negotiate a step- by-step
increase in the amount of alcohol that Swedes can
buy in countries with lower taxes and then bring
The Swedes have until 2004 to match the rest
of the union's member countries. But officials hope
that they can influence the rest of the European
Union to see alcohol as a health problem.
Increasingly, the southern countries too are seeing
a rise in binge drinking among the youth.
"We are getting some of their drinking and they
are getting some of ours," said Maria Renstrom, an
expert on alcohol policy with the Ministry of
Health and Social Affairs. "So maybe we will be
able to find common ground."
In the meantime, however, Swedish officials have
fashioned a new anti-alcohol plan that focuses on
education, including programs for pregnant women,
tough drunk driving laws, tougher regulations
governing serving drinks to minors and a ban on
Yet even the ban on advertising is under attack.
In early March, the European Court of Justice
upheld the view that the ban was an obstacle to the
free movement of services within union countries
and therefore contravened the European Union
Some Swedish politicians applaud the changes and
say that more will come soon.
The alcohol industry says that the black market
accounts for a steep drop in the legitimate sales
of liquor over the last five years.
For some this is a strong argument for quick
removal of the high taxes. "Around one-third of the
alcohol sold here today is criminal alcohol," said
Leif Carlson, a conservative member of the Swedish
Parliament. "And a lot of things follow this. Mafia
behavior, violence. People have to see the facts.
Life has changed. We can't get rid of alcohol; it
is in society."
At a rehabilitation center in the working-class
suburb of Bandhagen outside Stockholm, the
destruction that alcohol abuse can cause is visible
every day. But even here opinions vary on what
Sweden should do. Some of the social workers say
the changes won't make any difference to their
clients: the truly addicted have always managed to
get alcohol no matter what. Others believe the
government must act to protect the public
But everyone recognizes that the old
restrictions really are not possible anymore.
"We used to be isolated and now we aren't
anymore," said Lennart Johnk, who has worked with
alcoholics for 20 years. "The world is changing and
that is good, but as social workers I think we are
going to have more problems."