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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

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

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

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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