Alcohol policy: Sweden’s Groundhog day

“Groundhog day” is a film from the 90’s about a man that gets stuck reliving the same day over and over again. When looking at the Swedish alcohol policy debate in later years, there are some similarities to be found with the film.

Mid 2000’s was a time where the Swedish alcohol policy model was fiercely debated. The introduction of EU rules exempting alcohol purchased abroad from Swedish-level tax, increasing alcohol consumption and a bribery scandal at the Swedish alcohol monopoly led to support for the monopoly and the alcohol policy model falling rapidly. Liberalisations were in the air and the current ban on alcohol advertising in newspapers was lifted. Compared to neighbouring countries, however, Sweden fared fairly well in maintaining the ambitious status quo. Since that time, alcohol has fallen as a topic on the national policy agenda and few major changes have taken place in either directions.

The debate that remained was focussed on the topic of farm sales: the idea of allowing alcohol producers to sell their goods directly to consumers rather than through the Swedish public alcohol retail monopoly. Its proponents tended to paint a picture of picturesque vineyards in southern Sweden but call for policy changes that would allow distilleries and breweries in large cities to be able to do the same.

Farm sales has since then been the subject of two state investigations. Both have concluded that it is not possible to keep the Swedish public alcohol retail monopoly if farm sales are introduced. From an EU-perspective, such a system would be discriminatory to non-Swedish producers.

Despite the clear conclusions of the two state investigations, the topic has now returned to the top of the alcohol policy debate. In January 2019 the new government, as part of the centre-left/liberal cooperation agreement, decided to start preparations for a third state investigation into farm sales. So far, there is little evidence to make anyone expect that its conclusions would be different to those of the two previous investigations. Nonetheless, it implies a strong risks the issue will continue to dominate the alcohol policy agenda. And round it goes.

But all is not dark. Alcoholic ice-cream will hopefully soon be moved under alcohol control legislation and there is a completed state investigation with ready proposals that would restrict alcohol advertising in social media. Inspiration from ambitious policy changes in other countries is also slowly finding its way into the Swedish debate and could contribute to breaking the vicious loop of non-action. Hopefully policies like the minimum unit pricing in Scotland, cancer warning labels in Ireland and the total alcohol advertising ban in Lithuania can be what kick-starts the alcohol control debate.

Fingers crossed.

Kalle Dramstad
European Policy Officer, IOGT-NTO