“Without doubt, at least half of the local stores in Malmö sell alcohol,” said police inspector Christer Tulin to Swedish Radio’s Ekot. “Along with alcohol, smuggled cigarettes are also being sold to youngsters. In the last few years we’ve emptied 60 shops of alcoholic drinks.”
The problem is that the young men of southern Sweden are doing their best to help the police: the government’s own figures showed that almost every third male between the ages of 16 and 19 has bought smuggled booze.
Most of the alcohol coming into the Malmö area is said to come from Poland and Germany, where a bottle of vodka can cost as little as 50 crowns. In the city’s local shops the price rises to around 100 crowns a bottle – which is still half the price of vodka in Systembolaget, the state alcohol monopoly.
Such a significant price gap is leading to almost insatiable demand. That, combined with the apparent ease of smuggling, the trickiness of prosecuting sellers and the low penalties for those who actually are brought before the court (equivalent to a day’s earnings in most cases) led Monday’s Dagens Nyheter to declare that “Swedish alcohol politics is in crisis”.
The income from tax on alcohol is expected to fall by up to 380 million crowns this year, thanks not only to the illegal supply but also to massively increased legal purchases from abroad.
“We had expected a fall in the tax income, but we didn’t think it would be this big,” said Åsa Jakobsson from the government’s finance department. “The drop isn’t very good.”
Maybe not, but it’s an interesting addition to the cocktail of considerations facing finance minister Bosse Ringholm, who has said that there will be a government decision on the alcohol tax issue in the autumn.
The clearest indication yet of the likely outcome of that decision came on Tuesday, when Kent Härstedt, who is leading the government’s inquiry into how best to deal with the flood of booze from the ‘low tax countries’, announced that he had made his mind up.
“A reduction in the tax on alcohol is necessary,” he told DN. “And the sooner the better.”
But Härstedt acknowledged that far from being a step forward, this will be the lesser of two evils as far as the government is concerned. While a price fall will – for the time being – protect the position of Systembolaget, “it will certainly lead to Swedes drinking more”.
But just as Swedes up and down the land were about to raise a glass to Mr Härstedt, Tuesday’s Aftonbladet leapt in with a sobering reminder that there’s a third front in the country’s alcohol battle: health.
The paper reported that Swedes’ tendency to drink through the long summer holiday “can provide a basis for alcoholism” and lead to “many serious consequences”.
Assorted experts pointed out that traffic accidents, family problems, mistreatment of children and divorce all increase when people drink more – not to mention cirrhosis of the liver, inflammation of the pancreas, cramps, panic attacks, delirium and heart palpitations. Oh, and suicide.
Just a mineral water, please.