Editor's Own / Lifestyle

Scandinavia’s Alcohol Monopolies

systembolaget-sweden-alcohol

Scandinavians are famous for their heavy drinking, but are their socialist monopolies on alcohol doing anything to reverse this?


Alexander Brett

In 1995 Harry Franzen, a grocer from Rostanga in southern Sweden, was persecuted for selling wine in his store. Franzen cited Articles 30 and 37 of the EU Constitution of 1993 to take his case all the way to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Its decision: Systembolaget’s alcoholic retail monopoly would continue without change.

But how is it conceivable that the state can hold a monopoly on its citizens’ personal consumption of wine, beer and spirits? We all know that Scandinavia contains some particularly heavy-handed welfare states, but these are, according to all statistics, also some of the most liberal nations in the world. 

Norway has its Vinmonopolet, Finland its suitably named Alkos, Iceland its Vinbud and even the little Faroe Islands their Rusdrekkasøla Landsins. Surprisingly, given a stroll around Copenhagen on a Friday night, metropolitan Denmark has no such controls. 

Further to all this, the age of purchasing in the Systembolaget stores is twenty; something not out of place in North America, but when most of Europe sets purchasing ages at eighteen, and several at sixteen, looks entirely out of proportion. 

Let’s take each country one at a time, starting with Norway.

Following the prohibition of alcohol in 1919 wine producing nations demanded a reflexive policy for goods exported from Norway, and Vinmonopolet was established in 1922 to deal with this, allowing people to buy wine in monopolised outlets. 

Vinmonopolet, known to Norwegians simply as “polet, has, like Systembolaget, had its legal run ins: in 1996 the European Court of Justice (despite not being an EU member, as part of the European Economic Area Norway must abide by EU laws) ruled that the monopoly was in violation of EEA agreements. The Ministry of Care and Social Services subsequently found a way around the problem and simply divided Vinmonopolet into Arcus, taking care of all production, imports and distributions, and Vinmonopolet, in charge of retailing, something made easier by the introduction of self-service machines replacing over- the- counter sales in nearly all shops as early as 1999, with internet sales following soon after in 2002.

Surveys from the mid 1990s show that the majority of the population were in favour of dissolving the arrangement and Norway’s largest strikes since World War Two in the 1970s were a direct result of discontent with the system. But, amazingly, after the restructuring of 1996, public opinion has increased dramatically; a 2009 survey by Norsk Kundebarometer showed that a remarkable 88% of people were satisfied with Vinmonopolet and a 2013 Gallup poll projected that 74% of the population now want to keep the monopoly in place. Economists too have been quick to praise the company, and prestigious Oslo restaurant sommelier Robert Lie stated that “there are no wine stores in the world with equal selection”.

“There are no wine stores in the world with equal selection”

Variety is undoubtedly something the monopolies have managed to achieve. In fact, figures for 2009 and 2010 show that Vinmonopolet offered more than 12,000 products, Systembolaget 9,000 and Alko 3,000, compared to only 1,500 that Britain’s private supermarket Waitrose can provide. Even more astonishingly, that number for Vinmonopolet increased to nearly 17,000 products in 2013. 


Vinmonopolet1


While Alko, Finland’s monopoly, has its origins in largely the same form as Norway’s Vinmonopolet– prohibition existed from 1919 until a referendum in 1932 paved the way for a government owned retailer. Finland’s war-torn history has meant that Alko has often played a role in the country’s military production, most notably during the 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviet Union when the company mass-produced Molotov cocktails totaling around 450,000 units.

From a foreigner’s perspective the rationing of alcohol in Finland is perhaps stereotypically more understandable than in the other Nordic countries; the Finns have earned a serious reputation for being heavy drinkers abroad and, as Michael Booth notes in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, “when the Helsinki ferry to Tallinn arrives and hundreds of thirsty Finns disembark, the Estonians run for cover”. 

And statistics back the stereotype up: Finns consumed 12.3 litres of alcohol per capita in 2010, around ten litres more than their closest Nordic neighbour in the table, Denmark, and five litres above Sweden and Norway. Prominent Finns also don’t help in dispelling opinions: Jean Sibelius was well known to conduct three or four day binging sessions and former Prime Minister Ahti Karjalainen was frequently seen drunk and eventually sacked after being arrested for drink driving.

Jean Sibelius was well known to conduct three or four day binging sessions and former Prime Minister Ahti Karjalainen was frequently seen drunk and eventually sacked after being arrested for drink driving”

Matti Peltonen, head of the Department of Social History at the University of Helsinki states that “while the statistics are worrying, it’s not the amount of alcohol Finland consumes that is concerning but the way in which we drink it, the reputation of Finns as heavy drinkers comes from the fact that we are “episodic” about it”. Peltonen also notes that the stereotype is one Finns have imposed upon themselves, from the upper classes constantly passing the lower classes off as drunks.

But if statistics are to be believed then the stereotype of heavy-drinking Finns many have a grounding, but not so for the whole Nordic region (Iceland lies at twenty ninth of thirty one countries sampled). Perhaps this really is down to their alcohol monopolies. In Iceland’s case certainly it would seem there is little question for many as to whether or not the system is working. 

But perhaps the secret to Iceland’s Vinbudin stores success lies not in their existence, but their high licensing fees (restaurants and bars in all the Nordic countries are able to provide alcohol to those over eighteen, or sixteen in Denmark) and the fact that tax rates in stores are taken not on a percentage of the price, but are proportionate to the alcohol content. In other words, while the Finns are able to buy anything from Carlsberg to Russian Standard in their alcohol stores with the tax taken as a percentage of the price, Icelanders become much more weary at buying, say, aquavit, as its alcohol content, and therefore price, will be much higher than a can of lager (Iceland also seems to have a more logical idea in the fact that Vinbudin, under the control of state-owned company ATVR, also holds a monopoly on the provision of tobacco).

But while I have used “monopoly” and “rationing” interchangeably so far, it is important that I clear this up: while the state rations the imports of alcohol, and the former systems (still used in rural areas) certainly felt as though alcohol was rationed at the point of delivery, with one having to ask the attendant for your product, like in a chemist, Systembolaget and its counterparts do operate on a free quota basis. Indeed, this has led to the terrible irony that Danes, who live in a non-monopolised system, frequently cross the Øresund Bridge to Sweden, where there is a monopoly, to buy cheaper alcohol.

But there was a time when Sweden really did ration its citizens’ alcohol consumption.

Despite its neutrality in World War One, beer was banned and only two litres of spirits were available to buy every month with unemployed people and women unable to buy anything whatsoever.

Unlike the total prohibition that existed among Sweden’s neighbours, a referendum in 1922 advised the government by 51% not to introduce total prohibition, and rationing, albeit on a smaller scale than during wartime, remained in place until as late as 1955. This became known as the “Bratt System” (after the politician behind the scheme, Ivan Bratt) requiring that each citizen carried a “motbok” in which a stamp would be added for each purchase. Naturally, the system was not effective and people frequently used their friends’ or even strangers’ books, leading to it being scaled back and eventually falling away.


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Ivan Bratt: the politician behind the rationing scheme


In fact, the Swedish attitude to alcohol, and perhaps the source of our stereotypes of the Scandinavian hard drinker can be traced back to the nineteenth century when Sweden was a European poorhouse and much of the population turned to alcohol as a source of comfort.

Rapid industrialisation meant brännvin (distilled alcohol) saw increased production, and this prompted the king to get a hold on public drinking habits, prompting a similar crackdown in the other Nordic countries and, as many would say, paving the way for rationing and the current systems.

At the moment it seems that the systems enjoy relative popularity among their citizens, certainly if Norway’s statistics (mentioned earlier) are anything to go by. But with the EU’s free market, the disputes I discussed are only increasing (2007 for example saw the EU rule against the ban on Swedes importing alcohol from abroad). Politicians in Scandinavia and Brussels are right to point out that being a member of the EU means being a member of the Single Market and there is no way around this; while, post-Brexit, the EU may be scaling down, this is something too fundamental to ignore.

So will the EU eventually end these systems?

I believe this is fanciful.

The monopolies are far too popular domestically and Scandinavian politicians will always find an alternative way around, as they have in Norway and Finland.

These systems will be around for a while yet and while they undoubtedly have their advantages, as Peltonen reminds us “they give huge variety and quality”, I could never agree with them in principle.

In many ways I share Michael Booth’s view that “if we have alcohol monopolies to protect health, where are the sugar and fat monopolies?”, but also the American essayist Sarah Sontag’s take on the Systembolaget as “part funeral parlour, part back room abortionist”. The way in which the government feels it must control its citizens intake of toxins is quite simply patronising. We in the UK, well below Finland in alcohol consumption, are able to control ourselves, so why not the average Norwegian, Swede, Finn or Icelander.

Certainly the dark nights may be an explanation- and interestingly one of the only non-Nordic countries with similar arrangements is Canada, also with long, cold winters- but I believe they are used now more as an excuse than an explanation for this absurd set-up. 

Still, Scandinavians are famous for living by the rule book, and for citizens that won’t even cross on a red light with no traffic, perhaps they really are in need of a guiding force to control the health of their own bodies.


 

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