Editorial: One last swig?

Systembolaget has been trying to persuade the EU this week that an alcohol retail monopoly is the only way to protect Swedish public health. But the result of the advertising campaign has only been to strengthen the impression that Systembolaget – and Sweden’s draconian alcohol regulations – are in their death throes.

“Dear Mr. B.”, started the letter from Systembolaget’s CEO Anitra Steen (aka Mrs Göran Persson) to Jose Manuel Barroso, “here’s why you should seriously consider cutting down on drinking”.

Well, dear Mrs P., perhaps instead of treating the President of the European Commission to a public lecture, you should start looking at more sustainable ways of managing Swedish drinking.

But first, let’s be clear: Systembolaget is part of a system that has led to Sweden having one of Europe’s lowest rates of alcohol-related deaths. This has been a good thing – Sweden had suffered from an alcohol problem for centuries. As far back as 1829, it is estimated that the average Swede (children included) drank 46 litres of vodka a year.

Yet while Systembolaget was necessary when it was founded fifty years ago, in today’s society it is struggling to justify its existence.

For quite apart from being the ultimate incarnation of the nanny state, that assumes it knows better than its citizens what is good for them, it is now clear that the alcohol monopoly is no longer functioning.

When only 36 percent of spirits consumed in Stockholm (excluding those bought in bars) were bought at Systembolaget, there is something wrong with the System. As more and more people are buying their booze outside the country, what purpose remains for the high prices and restricted opening hours?

(Indeed it could be asked what purpose there ever was in forbidding alcohol sales on Sundays once they started allowing Systemet to open on Saturdays –Sweden’s supposed to be a secular country, right?)

What Systembolaget has a hard time accepting is that the rest of Europe will never raise its prices to Swedish levels – if anything, taxes are going down (in Denmark and Finland, for a start). And as for bringing in booze over international borders, there’s precious little that Sweden can do to stop it given that it is a full member of the EU.

Sweden may be shouting its message from the rooftops, but nobody seems to be listening.

There are also issues with whether a monopoly can really be fair to suppliers. Systembolaget staff are now on trial accused of routinely accepting gifts from potential suppliers, and favouring their products in return. If Systembolaget doesn’t give all potential suppliers equal treatment it weakens the case that the monopoly is compatible with European Single Market rules.

Meanwhile, the really interesting question is what is really motivating Sweden’s alcohol policy. Systembolaget’s profits of 240 million kronor last year went direct to the state (on top of revenue from alcohol tax).

This question becomes particularly pointed when you look at the other state-owned Swedish alcohol company, Vin&Sprit, producer of Absolut Vodka. V&S takes a much less po-faced attitude to boozing than Systembolaget, with its product placement in Sex and the City, for example, beamed straight back to Swedish screens.

The company’s current “Absolut Naughty” web campaign encourages readers to “show some passion” and send Christmas kisses to friends. So linking alcohol to sex is now the Swedish state’s way of encouraging responsible drinking?

Given that V&S is one of the world’s most succesful and aggressive marketers of hard liquor the European Commission would be well advised to take paternalistic claims to moral superiority from the various organs of the Swedish state with a heavy pinch of salt.

But the real message needs to be heard not in Brussels, but in Stockholm: the Swedish alcohol monopoly is falling apart. The Swedish government needs to pluck up the courage to put it out of its misery, and come up with an alcohol policy fit for the twenty-first century.

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Swedes warned: Vodka won’t protect you from the coronavirus

Sweden's state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget has advised customers not to buy its spirits as a substitute for hand sanitiser.

Swedes warned: Vodka won't protect you from the coronavirus
Stockholmers queuing outside Systembolaget before Easter. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

One of the best ways of avoiding the new coronavirus and prevent its spread is to wash your hands often with soap and water, according to the Swedish Public Healh Agency.

If you don't have access to soap or running water, hand sanitiser is the next best option, but the product has been flying off the shelves as shoppers try to get their hands on a bottle.

Sweden's state-owned alcohol chain Systembolaget has been forced to put up signs in several of its stores informing customers that alcohol such as vodka and gin does not work as a substitute for hand sanitiser.

“NOT HAND SANITISER,” read the signs.

“We have had a few questions from customers and have put up signs in those stores,” said Systembolaget press officer Therese Elmgren.

“But it is not possible, just as the signs say. The percentage (of alcohol) needs to be higher.”

An alcohol concentration of at least 60 percent is needed for disinfectant to be effective in killing viruses or bacteria. Absolut Vodka, to use an example of a popular Swedish vodka brand, has an alcohol concentration of 40 percent.

However, some of the ingredients are the same, and during the coronavirus crisis Absolut has adapted parts of its manufacturing in order to produce pure alcohol which can be used for cleaning purposes, instead of vodka for consumption. This pure alcohol then needs to be mixed with gel, manufactured separately, to create usable sanitiser for the healthcare sector.