(Repost, due to Folknykterhetens dag)
When it comes to the state monopoly on the sale of alcohol, many people are of the opinion that the monopoly is preferable to any free market solution. Maintenance of the monopoly is seen as necessary in order to minimize the extent of damage caused by intoxication and alcohol related illnesses. The proponents in the matter refer to a damage control of public health issues (i.e. alcohol related illness deaths, homicides, fatal accidents and violence et cetera). My perspective is actually that this notion is sententious and patronizing; it is not based on empirical evidence but apprehensions and theories that have been proven erroneous.
Systembolaget, or Systemet, is a Swedish, state owned liquor store chain with a monopoly on the sale of alcohol, motivated on moral grounds. Any other retail of spirits and liquor is prohibited by the Swedish Alcohol Act (Thomas Karlsson and Esa Österberg 2002:7). Its current opening hours is generally 43 hours per week (central and bigger stores are open for up to 47 hours per week) and its customers must be 20 years of age in order to buy any products.
The main reason the state has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol is that it supposedly limits damage caused by alcohol, or rather the damage is limited if “alcohol is sold without profit-seeking incentives” (Systembolaget 2010). In societal debate, support of the monopoly is often linked to apprehensions regarding alcoholism and its potential spreading, such as the viewpoint of the independent liberal newspaper Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) (DN, Editorial 2009). Systembolaget’s own mandate is described as follows:
We want to inspire people to take an interest in what they drink and to focus on health and quality rather than quantity. […] Systembolaget’s mandate from the Swedish state is to help limit the medical and social harm caused by alcohol and thereby improve public health. (Systembolaget 2010)
But is there actually a correlation between a more free market and an increase in alcoholism? According to Mattias Svensson’s report on the Swedish monopoly, the correlation between both drinking and greater damage as well as between liberalizations and increased drinking remains unproven. The actual observable connections testify that the apprehensions were exaggerated (Svensson 2012:24).
Svensson describes the previous 20 years of political change in the monopoly as liberalized. He recounts for the following liberalizations (my translation): Product range has been widened to include ale, cider, bag-in-boxes and alcoholic beverages, which were previously banned. Taxation on beer was reduced by 38% in 1997. This equated to a 20% price cut. (Svensson 2012:4) Systembolaget used to be closed on weekends and on weekdays prior to holidays to minimize the increased drinking during such events, but the opening hours had been increased to include Saturdays and weekdays prior to holidays since 2001 (Folkhälsoinstitutet2007). . Given these facts, it would in the pro-restrictive point of view follow that we now have an increase in alcoholism. After all, this assumption is the main reason Sweden has a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol. However, this is not the case.
According to The Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs (SoRAD) the quota of so called risk drinkers* to “regular drinkers” has in women decreased from 9% to 8% between 2004 and 2010, and in men from 16% to 13% over the same period. Furthermore the proportion of abstainers has in males increased from 16.2% in 2003 to 18.9% (2010) and in women increased by 1 percentage point (SoRAD 2010:47).
Alcohol consumption according to the EU’s Heidi Data Tool (Health in Europe: Information and Data Interface) has actually decreased since the 1970’s by half a liter per capita in citizens older than15 years of age. Admittedly the liter per per capita has increased from 8 liters of pure alcohol per person in 1996 to 10.5 liters in 2004, but since then it has decreased to 9.3 liters in 2009 (SoRAD 2004).
Damage related to alcohol has also decreased (Svensson 2012, SoRAD 2004). Alcohol related illness casualties are declining in numbers. Accidents do not show any statistical significance other than that they have not increased in correlation to increased alcohol consumption. Violence and deadly violence accompanied by intoxication had decreased during the 1990’s and the 2000’s (Svensson 2012).
To conclude I would like to argue that laws restricting the freedom of the citizens should preferably be based on empirical evidence; there is evidently no reason to inhibit the autonomy of individuals based on the assumptions the proponents have made. As has been put forward in this text the apprehensions regarding increasing alcoholism, violence and accidents have not followed neither a more liberalized monopoly nor an increase in overall consumption. This only leaves the wishful-thinking ideal of a teetotaler Society and patronizing ideas that adults can not make adult decisions regarding their own lives.
* Defined as women who drink more than 9 glasses of wine or the equivalent and men who drink more than 14 glasses of wine or the equivalent.
“Systembolaget finns till av en enda anledning: de alkoholrelaterade problemen blir mindre om alkohol säljs utan att styras av vinstintresse. Systembolagets uttalade roll är att bidra till att begränsa alkoholens skadeverkningar.” In English: “Systembolaget exists for one reason and one reason only: alcohol-related problems are reduced if alcohol is sold in the absence of a profit motive.”
Thomas Karlsson and Esa Österberg 2002:
Dagens Nyheter Editorial 2009:
Alkoholen – en lyckad svensk liberalisering. Svensson 2012:
Tal om Alkohol. (Alcohol in numbers) SoRAD 2010
Till vilket pris? (To what end?) SoRAD 2004
If Retail Alcohol Sales in Sweden were Privatized, what would be the Potential Consequences? Folkhälsoinstitutet (Swedish National Institute of Public Health):
Health in Europe: Information and Data Interface (Heidi)