Swedish Experience with Alcohol

Frank Ward has lived in Sweden for decades and recently reflected upon the changes he has witnessed over that time. 1 He points out that

“During my lifetime I have followed one nation’s progress from near-prohibition to a more liberal, tolerant approach. When I arrived in Stockholm in the early 1960s Sweden was almost as far apart from the rest of Europe as the countries behind the iron curtain. People traveled little in those days and Sweden’s social- democratic government was a very paternalistic one, guiding citizens in the “right” direction in various ways. The Swedes were friendly but subdued (at midnight, in sub-zero temperatures, one would see pedestrians patiently waiting for traffic lights to change before crossing roads empty of traffic). I recall one well-traveled Swede telling me that he never found such passivity in any other country.”

It may seem strange, but

“In the 1950s Sweden still had ration books for alcoholic drinks. This allowed the authorities not only to limit the individual’s consumption but also to keep tabs on it. Every bottle you bought was entered into the book; when the limit was reached you weren’t allowed another drop. This authoritarian attitude was still very much in evidence when I arrived. Monopoly shops could be as crowded as railway stations, with over a hundred people waiting to place their order. Customers might be turned away summarily, no matter how long they had been queuing. Outside, people pestered those on their way in to buy something for them. Some made a living by ostensibly buying for themselves and then selling on a profit. Many bourgeois citizens stowed their alcoholic purchases inside capacious briefcases, to hide them from prying eyes.”

Mr. Ward explains that “a retail monopoly, the Systembolaget, was in complete control of sales to the public. A mere 300 or so shops served a country twice the size of the United Kingdom.”

He says

“It was like Alice in Wonderland. While selling drink to the public was the Systembolaget’s raison d’être, it did everything possible to persuade them to abstain. When sales dropped, as they sometimes did (perhaps when illicit stills were unusually productive!), they published exultant advertisements in the press, drawing the public’s attention to the downward trend.

“Some of the propaganda was alarmist. To men it was hinted that drinking would make them impotent; one poster in monopoly shop windows showed a picture of a human body with hideously distended internal organs, with a text claiming that such was the inevitable result of habitual drinking. Those wanting to go out for a drink found that there were scarcely more than three or four places in the whole of Stockholm where this was possible. And if you got into one of them (there was always a queue) you could not get a drink before you had ordered a hefty – and very expensive – sandwich. The drinks themselves were four or five times more expensive as in an English pub. All of this produced a neurosis about alcohol comparable to attitudes to sex in Victorian England.”

The negative consequences of that policy were disastrous.

“Drunkenness was endemic. Indoors, it was rare to see people drinking in a relaxed and convivial manner – apparent high spirits were often tinged with desperation. On the streets, drunks were to be seen everywhere, at all times of day. It was impossible to take a short stroll without bumping (sometimes literally) into a succession of very drunk people. They fell out of doorways, toppled down stairs, reeled along pavements.”

Fortunately, Sweden relaxed its negative policy to a more enlightened one toward alcoholic beverages. Therefore, Mr. Ward observed Sweden’s

“slow, but very sure, progression towards a more liberal – and humane – attitude towards drink(ing alcohol).. I suspect that alcoholism has stayed at about the same level throughout the whole period. What has definitely changed is how the average Swede drinks. Now public drunkenness, at least among adults, is rarely seen and the ambience of restaurants is more relaxed and convivial than it was.”

Perhaps the United States would be wise to learn from Sweden’s good example. Unfortunately, we are currently going in the opposite direction. Therefore, we can expect to have more of the alcohol-related problems that used to exist when Sweden was less enlightened than it is now.


  • 1. Frank Ward. In praise of wine. Open Democracy, 2-26-04


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