What do you think about Sweden’s alcohol policy?

Every week a panel of readers will be giving their views on the burning issues of the hour. This week: Sweden's tough stance on alcohol.

What do you think about Sweden's alcohol policy?

Emma Chataway

Emma Chataway

The word “harsh” comes to mind. It’s not so much that once again I’m too young to buy alcohol, it’s the strict hours and high tax that make me cringe when I think of Systembolaget. I was going to a friend’s place for dinner the other night and I thought it would be nice to bring a bottle of red.

Then bam – it hit me: 1) I’m 19, 2) it’s 7.30pm and 3) I don’t think the 64 kronor I had with me would give me a decent enough bottle to bring. Even though I long for the day I can legally skip down to Systembolaget, I can see the advantages of prolonging the drinking age to keep us kiddies fit, healthy and all the rest.

I just hate the fact that you can no longer be spontaneous about buying booze. Let’s be a bit stereotypical here: I’m Australian and therefore laid back (lazy and unorganised), so I can see why it’s essential for Swedes to be anal about time. If you don’t plan well you’ll be spending a liver-happy, alcohol free night.

Daniel Nyström

Daniel Nyström

Swedish policy on alcohol has been very restrictive for years and even though the EU has forced us to open the market up for competition, we still have a state-sanctioned monopoly in the retail sector.

What have we gained from this? Not very much to date. In the early 90s it looked good and we didn’t consume much, but today we’re seeing quite high levels of alcohol intake per capita again.

I think the whole market should be opened up to more actors, but I’m not sure other Swedes would agree with me as most seem to have a mixed view.

On the one hand, they think it’s fine that the state controls and taxes alcohol to limit abuse, and on the other hand they want to get wasted quick, cheap and wherever they’re at.

Kristina Assouri

Kristina Assouri

Okay, I won’t lie. You are running late to dinner with your friends and you wish you could just run in to a grocery store or, in my case, the local Trader Joe’s for a merlot and… bam, we’re not in Kansas anymore kids!

The state-run monopoly closes at three on Saturdays, so unless part of your Saturday ritual includes making a stop at the Systembolaget you are out of luck.

It took a bit of getting used to, but I have to say that I agree with the implementation of Sweden’s strict alcohol policy. People may balk about freedom from undue taxes and the right to purchase alcohol from anywhere they choose, especially in the context of the European Union, but the underlying principles should be considered as well.

The basis of the strict policy is to prevent alcohol abuse which can lead to a whole onslaught of other societal woes.

Graeme Newcomb

Graeme Newcomb

The state’s policy towards alcohol largely reflects Swedish society’s attitude towards alcohol – ambivalent and, occasionally, hypocritical.

On the one hand, alcohol is recognised as an important “social lubricant” for a generally shy society.

On the other hand, a strongly Lutheran morality fosters a sense of shame about alcohol.

On the one hand, the Swedish state has one of the strictest drink-driving limits in the world, however, it is fine to drive while talking on a mobile phone (which has been proved to be as dangerous as being drunk) – but hey, talking is not a sin!

Whilst the state, through the Systemet monopoly and high taxes, is trying to reduce alcohol consumption, canny punters are simply switching to cheap and nasty moonshine, importing lakes of cheap Polish beer and binge drinking on the Finland ferry. Treat people like children and they will behave like children!

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith

I find it a bit confusing. On one hand, when you turn 18 you can go to a local pub and purchase high power beer, but you cannot buy that same beer at the Systembolaget. Which brings up another point, why is it only in those stores that you buy high power beer?

Granted, that beer is much stronger than what I was able to buy in the States, but it seems a little odd that low power beer can be purchased in any store.

Katarina Johnsson

Katarina Johnsson

The Systembolaget monopoly is the state’s key policy tool. This monopoly of stores with limited opening times is inconvenient and against the EU principle of free competition.

It does, however, have some great advantages: for example, being one of the biggest wine buyers in the world, Systembolaget offers wine at very competitive prices. The staff are very professional – a life saver when you stand there with dinner planned and no idea what wine to serve.

In addition, for the knowledgeable buyer, Systembolaget really does have the one of best ranges of wine and spirits on offer in the world.

In terms of personal experience, since returning to Sweden from living in the UK, my consumption of alcohol has reduced drastically because one cannot just pop in and buy a bottle of wine from the bottle shop next door. Hence, from a public health perspective, it does work.

Igor Trisic

Igor Trisic

Excessive alcohol consumption is harmful both to society and the individual. I am sure we can all agree on that. Indeed, a couple of years ago Stockholm and Lund universities did a study that showed that alcohol consumption costs Swedish society 20.3 billion kronor a year.

Therefore it makes sense to tax people who consume alcohol in order to cover the gigantic costs. The Swedish system achieves this.

In my opinion, this is more preferable than covering the shortfall using ordinary tax money, something that is done in Serbia where I come from.

Having a national agency that is not focused on profit ensures that people who want to drink moderately will be able to do so at reasonable prices, while those wishing to binge drink will find it expensive.

The only problem with the whole system is that it is exposed to profit driven competition from neighbouring countries. In my opinion principles of free trade should not apply to alcohol since that makes it extremely difficult for any country to regulate it and its potentially dangerous effects.

Athanassia Fourla

Athanassia Fourla

Well well. To start with I do not agree with the Systembolaget institution. I believe that the main reason for its existence is profit.

I understand of course that if alcohol were sold as in other countries the percentage of consumption would increase significantly in the first years but then it would be normalised.

I think that the sense of “forbidden” or “limited access to” makes alcohol more attractive.

As a consumer I feel embarrassed every time I go to Systembolaget even to buy some wine for cooking purposes. I think that others see me as an alcoholic.


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.