An end to the alcohol monopoly?

Despite EU membership, Sweden is holding on to its state liquor store monopoly. But there are signs that reform may be coming to a system that dates back to the mid-1800’s.

Like a number of other northern countries, Sweden has a tradition of heavy drinking, especially beer and hard liquor. Southern European habits of moderate wine consumption sometimes seem a bit alien, and the whole tone of legislation is to combat alcoholism by making it difficult for everyone to obtain drink.

One key part of that policy has been the state liquor store monopoly. If you want anything to drink stronger than weak beer, you have to go to one of the state stores, during their carefully regulated opening hours.

Some thought that when Sweden joined the EU, things might change, and maybe you could buy wine at your local grocery store. But despite a strong recommendation from the EU court’s advocate general, in a case on that very issue the court ultimately upheld the monopoly.

However, EU membership has also made it possible to travel outside the country and buy significant quantities of alcohol at much cheaper prices. Also perhaps because of climate change or just better technology, there are a growing number of vineyards here. They invite potential customers to drop by, but unlike their counterparts in other countries, Swedish vineyards are forbidden to sell any of their wine to visitors. Instead they are supposed to go to a nearby government store, which may or may not stock the wine in question.

Both of these developments are putting new pressure for a reform of the current system. An official study has recommended allowing for the sale of local wine at Swedish vineyards. At Sweden’s northernmost commercial vineyard, Blaxsta outside Flen, Göran Amnegård welcomes the proposal:

"Especially now when Sweden is trying to market its cuisine", he says, "it is a little naïve if not ridiculous to try to isolate food from drink."

The temperance movement doesn’t like the idea of making it easier to obtain alcohol. Nor does the National Institute of Public Health, tasked with combatting alcoholism.

The institute’s Jan Cederwern says they see tanglible risks such a reform could have negative consequences on public health.

But perhaps a sign that there is recognition there must be some kind of reform came when Carl B. Hamilton, a leading Liberal Party politician and a member of the board of the state liquor stores, wrote in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter calling for a change in the law so the state stores could sell their products online. This, he said, would solve the problem of vineyard sales.

He tells Swedish Radio News that "if the monopoly is to accepted it obliged to provide perfect service to sober well-behaved adults, and today that includes deliveries home".

The Liberals are traditionally the party of the temperance movement, and the proposal was immediately taken to task by Per Ankersjö, of the Center Party, which is traditionally the party of farmers. He writes in the same newspaper that the suggestion that online sales would solve the problem of vineyard sales reveals an ignorance of what vineyard sales mean.

How, he asks, would placing an order online, waiting two to four days for delivery, then paying a rather hefty delivery fee, replace being able to buy a bottle of wine on the spot? And foreign visitors wouldn’t be able to use the system at all.

He calls for an end to the retail alcohol monopoly.

And wine producer Göran Amnegård points out that by its own figures the monopoly has lost its hold, as today it accounts for only 45 percent of alcohol in Sweden. The rest is bought abroad or at restaurants.

He points out that even in neighboring Finland there are exceptions to the alcohol monopoly. He sees this is as a natural development of a modern society.