Since 1955, Swedes wanting to buy a bottle of beer, wine or spirits have had to queue up at one of the state-run alcohol monopoly distributors called Systembolaget, where they take a number and stand in line for their turn at the cash register.
While opening hours have in recent years been extended to include half-days on Saturdays and self-service stores have been introduced, Swedes, who must be over the age of 20 to buy booze, still grumble about the inaccessibility of alcohol, not to mention the high taxes imposed on it.
Systembolaget was created “for health reasons: people should avoid drinking alcoholic drinks and therefore they should be expensive and difficult to buy,” says Jörgen Hettne, the head of the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies at Stockholm University.
“Alcohol-related problems decrease if alcohol is sold without the aim of making a profit,” Systembolaget says on its website.
However, according to the Swedish National Institute of Public Health, alcohol consumption has risen dramatically since the mid-1990s, due in part to the lifting of import restrictions within the European Union.
In 1996, Swedes over the age of 15 consumed an average of 8.4 liters of pure alcohol (100-percent grade alcohol) per year. In 2005, the amount had risen to 10.2 liters.
For the retail sale of pharmaceutical products, the Swedish state reached an exclusive deal with Apoteket 35 years ago. As a result, even a simple headache tablet can only be sold at Apoteket stores.
Contrary to the philosophy behind the alcohol monopoly, medicines should be “easily available throughout the country and at a reasonable price,” Hettne says.
Apoteket’s monopoly should be viewed “in the perspective of justice and democracy,” spokesman Thony Björk says.
The monopolies’ goal is not to make a profit, but to manage the distribution of products that are seen as requiring special attention from authorities, he says.
Gambling outlets are also exclusively state-run. They are the horsebetting company ATG and the lottery and gaming group Svenska Spel, though they are being challenged by Internet poker and betting sites based outside Sweden.
Defenders say the monopolies make it possible to offer a wide selection of products and that they serve as guarantors of high quality. But for opponents they are a barrier to free choice and competition.
“The monopolies interfere with market forces,” Hettne says.
Ola Wiklund is a Swedish lawyer who represents an association of 700 people who have sued the state after alcohol they imported over the Internet was seized by customs.
He is critical of the state’s hypocrisy.
“The double standard of the gaming monopoly is exceptional,” he says, noting that slot machines are installed in Stockholm suburbs that have high jobless rates and lots of pensioners, with the sole aim of raking in more money for the state’s coffers.
The survival of the monopolies in their current form is threatened in the short-term by the possible victory of the centre-right opposition in Sweden’s legislative elections on September 17.
The so-called Alliance for Sweden has vowed to deregulate the retail pharmaceutical market if it takes power.
The European Union is meanwhile ratcheting up the pressure on Sweden to open up its monopolies.
Sweden has already had to give up its import monopoly, enabling restaurants and companies to import alcohol through other suppliers than Systembolaget, and in May 2005, the European Court of Justice ruled that the pharmaceutical retail monopoly violated EU law.