Fun beer

A different alcohol culture in Sweden

This article was written by Crystal Holt, a former volunteer at the Australian Drug Foundation.

“Alcoholic beverages are not just another product. And that’s why

Systembolaget exists – as an alcohol policy tool. We exist to help

limit the harmful effects of alcohol in society.” – Systembolaget website

After living in Sweden for six months on a University exchange program, I realised there are different ways of organising the promotion and distribution of alcohol.

In Sweden all liquor stores are part of a single, national company called “Systembolaget”. Alcohol laws and regulations at Systembolaget are very different to Australia, in that they’re based upon the premise of minimising “alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without a profit motive”.

As an Australian exchange student living in the university city of Uppsala, this was a huge revelation. After being surrounded by alcohol advertisements in every part of society within my home town of Melbourne, and having access to a liquor shop on nearly every corner, I had much less access to alcohol in Sweden.

Systembolaget have only 431 stores throughout the country, and are open only on Monday to Friday during the day and in the morning on Saturday. Systembolaget cannot advertise specific products to increase its sales, so unlike here in Australia, they do not offer special deals, or discounts for large purchases, or promotions for individual products. Instead the stores provide an extensive range of beverages and try not to favour one alcoholic beverage over another.

The exception is that shops and stores can sell low-strength beer below 3.5% ABV, while restaurants and bars can sell alcohol for consumption on premises.

Not favouring any product means that Systembolaget has developed a different marketing culture. The only advertising is for the Systembolaget stores themselves and for advice on responsible drinking. For instance, the benefit of choosing a lower alcohol content over a higher content, or why it’s best not to drink around children and younger people.

abv

Another difference to home was that people had to be aged 20 years or older to purchase full strength alcohol (i.e. above 3.5% ABV (alcohol by volume)). This was a massive shock to many of my 18 and 19-year-old peers on exchange from Australia. While they could go out to pubs and clubs, and even drink in restaurants, they could not buy take-away alcohol stronger than 3.5% ABV when shopping. This seemed to make a huge difference because it reduced the amount of young people drinking strong alcohol quickly at home or before going out.

Sweden’s restrictions on the selling of alcohol have made me realise that Australia is too comfortable with how readily accessible alcohol is and that the focus here is based on profit rather than the health of individuals.

Just for the record, according to the World Health Organisation Global Report on Alcohol and Health:

  • Sweden’s per capita alcohol consumption was 9.2 litres of pure alcohol in 2014 compared to Australia’s per capita alcohol consumption of 12.2 litres in 2014. Note that both figures include recorded and unrecorded consumption.