Editor's Own / History

A Short History of … Scandinavia’s Alcohol Monopolies

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For anyone who’s put up with shocking prices at a Finnish airport, or has waited for hours at a Swedish Systembolaget, Scandinavia’s alcohol monopolies are immensely irritating. Nevertheless, the Scandinavians love them. A 2013 poll found that over 74 per cent of Norwegians want to keep their alcohol monopoly in place…


Alexander Brett

In 1995 Harry Franzén, a grocer from Röstangå in southern Sweden, was persecuted for selling wine in his store. Franzén cited Articles 30 and 37 of the EU Constitution and took his case all the way to the European Court of Justice. Its decision: Systembolaget, the government-owned alcohol store, could continue its retail monopoly. Franzén was forbidden to sell wine. Sweden has a very heavy-handed welfare state but is also one of the world’s most liberal nations, so its undoubtedly strange such a system persists.

In the nineteenth century, when Sweden was an industrial powerhouse, much of the population turned to alcohol as a source of comfort. Rapid industrialisation meant brännvin (distilled alcohol) saw increased production, to such an extent the king even had to get involved, ordering manufacturers to slow down.


“In the nineteenth century, when Sweden was an industrial powerhouse, much of the population turned to alcohol as a source of comfort. Rapid industrialisation meant brännvin (distilled alcohol) saw increased production, to such an extent the king even had to get involved, ordering manufacturers to slow down.”


A referendum in 1922 advised Sweden’s government by 51 per cent not to impose total prohibition (like the other Nordic countries), so rationing was introduced instead. This persisted until 1955 and required each citizen carry a motbok in which a stamp was added for each purchase. Naturally, people often used their friends’ or even strangers’ books as a way round, and the system died out quietly.

Norway, however, completely prohibited alcohol for three years, from 1919 to 1922. Vinmonopolet was established in 1922 to deal with trade reflexes, allowing Norwegians to buy wine only in selected outlets.

Surveys from the mid-1990s show most Norwegians favoured dissolving the arrangement but, after restructuring of 1996, public opinion increased two-fold. A 2009 survey showed that 88 per cent of people are now satisfied with the company, and a 2013 Gallup poll projected that 74 per cent of the population wanted to keep the monopoly. Economists praise the company, particularly the number of products it can offer. Choice is indeed something the monopolies are very good at. Figures for 2010 show that Vinmonopolet offered more than 12,000 products, Systembolaget 9,000 and Alko 3,000, compared to only 1,500 products that Britain’s private supermarket, Waitrose, could provide. This year Vinmonopolet offered customers a record 17,000 products.


 

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