40% tax cut on booze: Government teetering

The so-called 'alcohol investigator', Kent Härstedt, finally published his highly anticipated report on alcohol policy on Monday. The Social Democrat member of parliament's main recommendation was that tax on spirits should be slashed by 40% from the turn of the year. This doesn't affect tax on wine or beer.

The problems the investigation team were asked to grapple with were the increasing quantities of alcohol being purchased abroad by private individuals, increasing organised smuggling of alcohol into Sweden and a disastrous sales performance by the state-owned alcohol retailer Systembolaget. That had to be balanced against increasing levels of alcohol consumption.

“It’s a painful road, a choice between the plague and cholera,” was how Härstedt summed it up.

Tuesday’s GP calculated that the suggested cut would mean the tax on a litre bottle of 40% proof vodka would plummet from around 200 crowns to 120 crowns. Another member of the investigation team, alcohol researcher Håkan Leifman, reckoned that would mean an increase in consumption of 7-8% over and above the current upward trend.

It was a priority for Härstedt to level the playing field for Systembolaget. “Their sales are going down with every month at the same time as criminal activity is on the rise,” he said. Customers must be won back before they turn their backs on the retailer for good.

A prime motivation for propping up Systembolaget was to protect youngsters from the black market. At the moment minors can get hold of strong alcohol through illegal suppliers such as convenience stores and corner shops.

Other recommendations made by Härstedt include: a new task force of customs officers and police to tackle smuggling and related crime; heavier penalties for the illegal supply of alcohol; and the storing of alcohol on shop premises to be made an offence. He also posed the question of whether the age limit for alcohol consumption at restaurants should be increased from 18 to 20, the same as for purchasing alcohol at Systembolaget.

Monday’s report constituted interim findings, with the final version due in January. This will concentrate more on the public health aspects of alcohol policy.

Tuesday’s SvD reported that the government supported the entire package of measures. Public health minister, Morgan Johansson, feels the need to reduce tax on spirits is urgent but wouldn’t commit himself to a figure.

“We’re going to negotiate with our coalition partners [the Greens and the Left Party]. We’re aware of their opposition, but we all agree on the need to save Systembolaget.”

That opposition didn’t take long to make itself heard. Peter Eriksson of the Greens and Pernilla Zethraeus of the Left Party immediately voiced their displeasure.

“The problem is the import of alcohol, so it’s those rules that should be addressed, not tax,” said Eriksson.

Wednesday’s DN thought the Christian Democrats would lead parliamentary opposition to the proposals. They have already clearly stated as a party that they are against decreases in alcohol tax and they are unfettered by party alliances.

Elsewhere, none of the parties seem to be united, with everybody waiting for someone else to make the first move. “If one of the other parties takes the initiative and puts up a public health defence, you can count me in,” said Green Jan Lindholm.

Leader of Social Democrat members of parliament, Britt Bohlin Olsson, said it was “very difficult” to say what her colleagues’ position would be.

Much seems to depend on how the question is treated in parliament. DN thought the chances were that it would be dealt with as a budget issue, in which case it will be one of a number of policies, which will be agreed by the Social Democrat, Left Party and Green coalition. Otherwise, it could be a free vote and a more unpredictable outcome.

A taste of things to come came in an impassioned article in Thursday’s SvD from Left Party politicians Pernilla Zethraeus, Rolf Olsson and Gunilla Wahlén. Under the headline ‘Drink, drink dear youths!’, they blamed membership of the EU for the collapse of Sweden’s traditionally tough alcohol policies.

“There’s a lot of heavy drinking going on in Sweden, more than in 100 years… In that situation the government should be trying to put the brakes on alcohol consumption. But instead Kent Härstedt throws in the towel and suggests a tax cut of 40%… The government should be investing all its energy in stemming the uncontrolled tide of alcohol flooding in over our borders as a result of over ten years of trying to fit in with the EU.”