Swedish Experience with Alcohol: We Should Learn from Sweden

Frank Ward has lived in Sweden for decades. He has seen the the Swedish experience with alcohol up close. Here he reflects on the changes he has witnessed over time.1 He points out that

Swedish experience with alcohol
Swedish Flag

“During my lifetime I have followed one nation’s progress from near-prohibition to a more tolerant approach. When I arrived in Stockholm in the early 1960s Sweden was very different from the rest of Europe. People traveled little in those days. And Sweden’s government was a very paternalistic one. It tried to guide citizens in the “right” direction.


It may seem strange, but

“In the 1950s Sweden still had ration books for alcoholic drinks. This allowed the authorities not only to limit one’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.”

Government monopoly stores

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

“Perhaps the US 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.

“It was like Alice in Wonderland. While selling drink to the public was the Systembolaget’s reason for being, it did everything possible to persuade them to abstain. Then, when sales dropped, they made ads. 

Swedish Experience with Alcohol

Swedish experience with alcohol

“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 bulging internal organs. The text claimed that such was the inevitable result of 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. It was comparable to attitudes to sex in Victorian England.”

Negative Effects

The negative results of that policy were disastrous.

“Drunkenness was endemic. Indoors, it was rare to see people drinking in a relaxed and convivial manner. On the streets, drunks were 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.”

Policy Relaxed

Fortunately, Sweden relaxed its negative policy to a more enlightened one toward alcohol. So Mr. Ward saw 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 is rare and the ambience of restaurants is more relaxed and social than it was.”

The Swedish experience with alcohol is very instructive. It shows us both the right and wrong ways to deal with alcohol.

Swedish Experience with Alcohol


Neo-prohibitionists in the US.


1. Ward, F. In praise of wine. Open Democracy. Reprinted, with slight editing, by permission.Templars of Honor and Temperance