‘Stop pushing alcohol on developing world’

Sweden needs to do more to prevent alcohol and tobacco companies from exploiting countries in the developing world, says Left Party member of parliament Kent Persson.

'Stop pushing alcohol on developing world'

The major international alcohol and tobacco companies are currently engaged in a tough fight to reach new markets. The tobacco companies are being squeezed in the West by a reduction in the use of tobacco, so they have turned their eyes to developing countries to sell their products. When they look at billions of the world’s poorest people what they see is a lot of potential customers.

It is against this background that the European Commission is forcing developing countries to open their markets to alcohol and tobacco. The Commission is using the World Trade Organization (WTO) to force through policies to open borders.

Using the GATS agreement on trade in services, they are trying to prevent WTO members from creating laws protecting public health – including on alcohol and tobacco. The position that WTO members should be forced to liberalize the trade in and marketing of alcohol is having a similar effect.

All this means that developing countries that want restrictions on the sale and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are being prevented from putting such restrictions in place. Countries like Taiwan and Sri Lanka, which currently have restrictions, will have to give up their current legislation.

This will mean that developing countries with weak voices will be unable to stop their markets being opened to the enormous marketing resources of multinational companies such as Philip Morris, Bacardi and Pernod Ricard. It will also clear a path for Sweden’s Vin & Sprit. And should the centre-right government go through with its plans to sell off the state-owned company Vin & Sprit, this will in no way reduce the company’s eagerness to gain a foothold in the markets of developing countries. In fact, the opposite is more likely, with the company becoming more reliant on profits.

It would be interesting to know what condition Sweden would be in today if stronger countries had pursued these sorts of policies in the last century. It was then that Sweden had major societal problems caused by alcohol consumption. The problem of widespread excessive drinking was tackled by introducing restrictions that enjoyed strong public support and by creating a state retail monopoly. This policy led to Sweden becoming one of the countries with the lowest alcohol consumption in the western world, which laid the foundations for improved public health, better household finances and other positive developments in a variety of areas.

The Left Party feels a sense of responsibility for people in poor countries. We demand an explanation from the centre-right government as to how Sweden’s development policies can be compatible with EU policies that push for the liberalization of the sale of alcohol and tobacco in the poorest countries.

And if these cannot be considered compatible, what does the centre-right government intend doing to block current EU policy?


Why alcohol-free beer is having a moment in Sweden

Almost one in every ten beers sold in Sweden is alcohol-free, and it's young people in cities who are the biggest consumers. So what's driving the popularity of the booze-free beverage?

Why alcohol-free beer is having a moment in Sweden
Young people in cities are driving the trend for more alcohol-free beer. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad / TT

The popularity of alcohol-free beer is growing fast in Sweden, thanks to technical progress which has improved both the quality and variety of the beverage. It was the drink category that saw the biggest rise in sales in Sweden during 2018, with a 41 percent growth, according to figures from the Swedish Brewers Association.

“We see an increase in all areas; [state-run alcohol monopoly] Systembolaget has increased its sales, restaurants now have more than one variety and the beer selection in supermarkets [where only drinks with an alcohol content below 3.5 percent may be sold] has become noticeably more interesting to consumers,” the association's CEO Anna-Karin Fondberg said.

Swedish brewery Spendrups, one of the major players in the market, has seen a 30 percent increase in sales of alcohol-free beer since 2018, and last year was a record year.

“It's a trend in society that we're turning to alcohol-free products more and more, but I think that more than anything it's about the taste,” commented Spendrups head of press Rose-Marie Hertzman.

“There is now a really good alternative for those who for some reason want to abstain from alcohol, and that has not always been the case. When we manufacture alcohol-free beer, we first make a strong beer [with high alcohol content] and then take away the alcohol, so you keep all the flavours,” said Hertzman.

Making beer free from alcohol is a complicated and expensive process, requiring manufacturers either to cut off the fermentation process or remove the alcohol afterwards. Alcohol is a flavour carrier, but modern techniques mean that it's no longer the case that alcohol-free beer means a flavourless drink.

Anna-Karin Fondberg of the Swedish Brewers Association agrees that product development has been important for the increased interest in alcohol-free beers.

“Swedish breweries got in there early and put a lot of resources into development, and it's paying off now. Consumers are choosy and alcohol-free beer today is a high quality product,” she said.

While the major breweries have played a part, a large number of microbreweries have started up over recent years, and helped draw attention to the wide variety when it comes to beer. This has meant that there are no longer only alcohol-free lagers, but also IPAs, ales, and porters. 

The biggest market for alcohol-free beer is young people living in Sweden's major cities, and as alcohol-free beer has risen in popularity, sales of low-alcohol beer or lättöl have fallen. Since 2018, more alcohol-free beers have been sold than lättöl, which has long been a popular choice for lunch and the only alternative outside Systembolaget's opening hours, and is most popular with middle-aged men.

Another of the reasons for booming sales of alcohol-free beer could well be an increased interest in healthy eating and drinking habits. While healthy food and exercise have long been important to Swedish consumers, and this has been reflected in sales figures within those sectors, there appears to be increasing attention paid to drinks and particularly alcohol.

“I think people want to drink different things at different occasions. We see in our surveys that many people don't only drink alcohol-free beverages, but earlier when someone for some reason didn't want a beer with alcohol, they would turn to water or soda,” said Fondberg.