Swedes taking increasingly sober look at country's notorious drink sales policy
Swedish alcohol prices in state stores are sky high, a bottle of vodka is about €35 - compared to €17 in Ireland
Few chief executives would welcome a fall in sales. But Magdalena Gerger, head of Sweden’s government-controlled retail alcohol monopoly, and one of the world’s biggest single buyers of wine, is one of them.
Gerger’s job as head of Systembolaget exemplifies Sweden’s attitude that an interventionist state is good for you, and highlights the country’s conservative attitude to alcohol use despite its stronger reputation abroad for liberal social policies.
“Nothing in my purpose or objectives drives that way [to increasing sales],” said Gerger, speaking in the Systembolaget headquarters in downtown Stockholm, squeezed between a bank and a church.
“In fact it’s the other way around – a healthier public.”
Systembolaget is a network of off-licences and is the only enterprise legally permitted in Sweden to sell alcohol direct to the public outside bars and restaurants. There are just over 400 outlets throughout the whole of Sweden (population: 9.5 million), which is almost six times the size of Ireland. Prices are sky high: a bottle of vodka is about 30 kroner – about €35 – compared to €17 in Ireland. Contrary to popular belief about Sweden, which lies in the so-called vodka belt, the Nordic country has one of the smallest per capita alcohol consumptions in Europe.
Over the past few years Sweden has privatised companies, trimmed its welfare state and cut taxes. But Systembolaget, along with the country’s famed, lengthy parental leave, appears a sacred cow oblivious to reform. If you want to buy wine, beer or spirits in Sweden outside a restaurant, you must contend with Systembolaget, stores that offer no promotions, are closed most of the weekend and have an uncanny ability to make you feel guilty.
Systembolaget made sales of 24.4 billion Swedish crowns (€2.88 billion) in 2011 though Gerger tends to be more occupied with ensuring age checks – 20 is the limit – are rigorously enforced.
Polls show a majority of Swedes support the system. But it is a model increasingly under scrutiny as Swedes buy more on the internet from Europe.
“Systembolaget is trusted. And for the average consumer it is okay. But as soon as you have more of a strong wine interest, it is extremely limited, especially for fine wines,” said Erica Landin, a Swedish wine writer.
Systembolaget is making reforms and there are plans to expand into home deliveries. But there is little chance of radical changes. – (Reuters)