Sunday, 14 October 2007

You Booze, You Lose.

Swedes have an unusual, and often conflicting attitude towards alcohol. One that is both very liberal and very conservative. As anyone who has every seen drunken Swedish backpackers/students/tourists knows, Swedes like to drink and they like to get drunk. Yet in Sweden itself, alcohol is often portrayed as an illicit drug on par with cocaine. Advertisements for wine include health warnings similar to those found on cigarette packets. As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, the Swedish media love running fear stories on teenage binge drinking as much as A Current Affair love stories on unemployed youths and Lebanese gangs. There seems be a very sizable and vocal portion of the Swedish population who are convinced the whole country will descent into a bunch of alcoholics if their strict laws on the sale of alcohol are relaxed. This week there was even a protest march against teenage binge drinking.

Of course everything in Sweden is expensive, but alcohol is particularly expensive as the whole market is heavily regulated. Prices are artificially inflated through high taxes, and the government has a monopoly over the industry. Outside of pubs and restaurants the only place where you can buy wine, spirits and full-strength beer is at the Systembolaget: the state-owned chain of bottle shops.
Systembolagets are pretty much like any ordinary bottle shop, except queues are a lot longer, you have to show your passport to the cashier, and when you leave you’re offered a booklet (not a leaflet, but a whole 36-page booklet) on the dangers of alcohol. (The pictures below come from this booklet.) They’re open 9-5, Monday to Friday, and for a few hours on Saturday morning. Queues on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings are even longer (even by Swedish standards), as anyone planning a dinner or party the following weekend tries to get in at the last minute.
However at least these days you can browse through the stock like a normal shop. I’m told that in the past, they resembled something from the old Soviet Union, with everything locked away in storage. You had to read through a catalogue, and write down the reference number of what you wanted on a slip of paper. You then handed in your slip to a cashier, pay, and then wait for your order to be retrieved from the storeroom.

Another rule stipulates that pubs and bars must serve food, so most drinking holes are just as much restaurants and cafes as they are bars. Pubs that prefer to concentrate on drinking will often offer a bare minimum menu. For example Gothenburg’s only Aussie pub, the Dancin Dingo, offers four dishes (one of which is a bowl of chips) in what is definitely a “I’m legally required to sell food” menu.

Swedes have responded by invented various ways to get around such high prices. For one there is a big black market in homemade alcohol. I’m yet to get that desperate for a drink, but I hear such beverages are pretty putrid and the hangovers are even worse.
Pre-parties are also popular. That’s when people meet up at a friend’s place and drink before going out to a bar or pub. My friend Marte in Oslo used to buy a cheap cask of red wine whenever she went out, and hid it in her handbag. She’d then buy one glass of red wine, and just keep topping it up under the table.
Pre-parties also mean that many pubs and bars remain practically empty right up until 12-1am, as everyone is still at home indulging in cheaper booze. Then in a space of an hour they can be full to capacity with a long queue out front.

The idea behind Sweden’s strict laws is to discourage binge drinking and alcoholicism. But for all the effects such laws have had on Swedish drinking habits, as far as I can tell they have done nothing to reduce either. I see more drunkards in public here then I have in just about any other city in the world. Barely a week goes by that I don’t come across packs of boozed up derelicts throwing up on a tram, or passed out in a public park.
As for binge drinking, Swedes don’t drink any other way. No one has the occasional glass of wine with their meal, or meet up for a beer or two. Generally people drink with the sole intention of getting drunk. It’s either don’t drink at all, or drink to excess. No middle ground. If you arrange to meet up with a friend for a drink, you might be thinking one or two then home, but they’ll be preparing for a big night out. They arrive all dressed up, and have had drunk a bottle of wine beforehand. They’ll then proceed to order drink after drink, with the occasional shot thrown in. And they won’t stop until the bouncers are throwing them out covered in their own vomit.

Yet for all their excessiveness on a Friday or Saturday night, many Swedes also have a tendency to suddenly convert to a life of purity the rest of the week. Suddenly alcohol becomes a sin again. I came across a typical example just recently. I was on the way home from football training with one Australian and one Swede. The Australian asked if we wanted to go for a quick beer. I agreed but our Swedish teammate looked at us in disbelief. “What? On a Monday night?” he screeched, “No way!” The previous Saturday night I had seen the same guy knocking back whisky and cokes like his life depended on it. He obviously thought an invitation to the pub entailed a repeat performance, and could not even conceive the possibility of having one beer and leaving.
Judging from the local pubs and bars, this attitude is typical in Sweden. They may get crowded late on a Friday/Saturday night, but anyone drinking at any other time of the week is often an alcoholic. Sweden is the only country where I’ve been told it’s inappropriate to bring a bottle of wine when friends have invited us to a dinner party on a Sunday night. Or where I’ve gone to the local pub on a Sunday afternoon to watch the football, and found myself the only person drinking a beer rather then bottled water.

Sweden’s alcohol laws have been in the news a lot recently, as they have triggered a confrontation with the European Union. It appears they contravene a number of EU regulations on trade and movement of goods. The Swedish government have responded by making a short video explaining and justifying their laws, to be presented to the EU Parliament. You can watch it at It’s in English, only goes for five minutes, and has some hilarious footage of a man injuring himself with a stick of rhubarb.


TD said...

I was speaking to a Swedish friend of mine yesterday and he said that Swedes actually put something in alcohol to prevent excessive drinking (i.e you are more likely to vomit than normally, thus reducing the actual hit to the body). I just thought, you're just mistaking this with too much drink and throwing up!!!

Nic said...

Well I've never heard that before. It certainly sounds bizarre and borders on conspiracy theory. But it's an interesting idea and it would certainly explain a few things. Thanks for letting me know TD, I'll look into it.