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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Swedes have a deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol, embodied in the state monopoly on its sale. Although ridden with guilt and hypocrisy, it is a healthy relationship, says David Crouch

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol
A customer buys alcohol in Systenbolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman / TT

Those boxes by the checkout sum up my problem with Systembolaget, Sweden’s chain of state-owned liquor stores. The boxes are called ångravagnar, from ångra, to regret. “Psst,” says the sign over each one. “Have you changed your mind? Here you can put back any drinks you don’t want to buy.”

The boxes are there to make you think again – do you really need all that booze? Won’t you hate yourself if you don’t put back a bottle or two? 

The regret boxes seem to serve little practical purpose, because they are almost always empty. Instead, they are there to send a message, whispering “Psst!” in your ear: “Don’t do it! Alcohol is wicked!”

Smiling assistants lurk around the stores, in theory so you can ask them what wine goes best with your food. Nonsense – they are the morality police, another “psst” in your ear. Talking to them feels like going to confession: forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. Then there are all the TV ads for Systembolaget depicting toddlers being abused by drunken parents, or pious staff saying their aim is to sell less alcohol, not more

As a result, entering Systembolaget feels like having sex in church: a shameful pleasure. Here you cease to be an adult capable of taking decisions for yourself and instead become a wayward teenager who needs to be shepherded towards acceptable behaviour.  

Systembolaget – abbreviated to Systemet, or “the System” – is the embodiment of Swedes’ deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol. It is institutionalised guilt on national scale. 

This guilt has historical roots. Sweden once had a serious alcohol problem. A century ago, average vodka consumption reached almost a litre a week for every man, woman and child. For decades, the country battled to find a way to bring down consumption, first with rationing and then the state monopoly from 1955.

The guilty view of alcohol lives on in all sorts of ways. Sweden, a nation renowned for embracing modernity and liberal freedoms, still has a significant temperance movement. The snappily named Independent Order of Good Templars has 24,000 members – more than most of Sweden’s political parties – and believes that Systembolaget should close at 5pm and be shut altogether on Fridays and Saturdays. 

In Britain, for example, politicians like to pose with a drink to show they are “of the people”. This could never happen here. I once went campaigning with a political leader in the run-up to elections, and we needed somewhere warm afterwards for an interview. But she declined to enter a convenient bar in case she might be photographed in a place selling alcohol. 

Quite apart from the System’s restrictive opening hours, there are very few stores – just 450, or one per 23,000 people. Until very recently, there were more golf courses in Sweden than places where you could buy a bottle of wine over the counter. (There are 449 golf courses, down from 454 in 2019.)

A recent opinion survey has compared attitudes to alcohol in the Nordics. Sweden emerges clearly as the Nordic nation that is the most uptight about alcohol. Fewer than half (45%) of Swedes say it’s okay occasionally to get drunk; one in five say it is even wrong to get drunk at a party. Finns and Danes come out as far more relaxed about booze. 

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. In my experience, the best way to liven up a social gathering in Sweden is to uncork the gin and let it flow copiously. Not so long ago, a former government minister responsible for raising the tax on alcohol became so inebriated (berusad) at a party in the Stockholm archipelago that he exposed himself to the female guests. 

And yet, Sweden’s relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. Systembolaget is popular among Swedes, its reputation exceeding that of well-loved brands such as IKEA, Volvo or Spotify. More than three-quarters want the state monopoly on alcohol to remain in force, while only 18 percent say they want wine and spirits to be on sold in other stores

Despite its faults, Systembolaget represents society taking collective responsibility for a drug that has the potential to cause great harm. After decades of free-market liberalism across the globe, it is easy to forget that societies once behaved like societies, instead of leaving everything to individuals and the interplay of supply and demand. 

How refreshing that young people are not bombarded with advertising telling them they need booze to gave a good time. Living here, you would never have any idea that the country supplies the world with that supreme party drink, Absolut Vodka. Consumption is ticking downwards, and fewer than 3 percent of Swedes drink every day

When I see those regret boxes, part of me wants to scream: “Regrets?! No way! It’s been a hard week, let me get wasted in peace.” But the boxes are the price I have to pay for the comforting knowledge that, in this aspect at least, Swedish society takes responsibility for its citizens’ welfare. I don’t like it, but I accept that it is necessary. It is not ideal, but it works. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. Now add drugs deaths per capita, average budget of a teenager and price per use (alcohol vs narcotics) into the mix.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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