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Europe Making Sweden Ease Alcohol Rules

New York Times, March 28, 2001

STOCKHOLM, March 23: For decades, Sweden's liquor stores were few and far between and had the look of hospital pharmacies. They closed by 6 on weekdays and never opened on weekends. Choice was limited and prices high.

Bottles were displayed inside glass cases. Customers took numbers--and waited.

These measures were imposed to discourage the consumption of alcohol in a nation with a tradition of drinking to the point of drunkenness and a history of abuse going back to the miseries of 19th-century industrialization, when cheap liquor led to widespread abuse.

But piece by piece, Sweden is being forced to take apart its anti-alcohol policies because most violate the European Union's rules of fair competition. Some liquor stores are open late and on Saturdays. A few have been remade into cheerfully decorated self-service stores. And wine lovers can delight in a wide selection.

The tax on beer is down. The tax on wine is expected to follow, and some say that even the high taxes on hard liquor will go eventually. Even restrictions that do not have to go, like the high taxes, are being undermined by open borders.

Heading into the weekend, it is easy enough to find young Swedes in liquor stores who applaud these changes and say that their country is finally catching up with the rest of the world. But it is easy too to find Swedes who are deeply concerned over the changes and worried that the years of controlling consumption through state-owned monopolies and high taxes have not really cured this nation of bad drinking habits.

Some contend that if Swedish voters had fully understood how entry into the European Union would loosen the state's grip on alcohol, the country might not have joined. Alcohol consumption is on the rise, and some worry how far it will go.

Already Swedish officials say the country has a growing black market in liquor. Near Sweden's southern border, pensioners are making extra cash by driving back and forth from Denmark with their trunks full of untaxed beer.

"I'm just not sure that Sweden is ready for this," said Sonia Ostergen, the manager of the state's dreary liquor store in the Stockholm suburb of Sundbyber. "Cheaper beer and wine, maybe. But I don't think it should be easier to get hard liquor. We all know people who have problems. "

Experts say that what is happening in Sweden over alcohol policy is in many ways a prime example of the difficulties the European Union faces as it tries to extend its reach and harmonize policies. Stretching from freezing climates to desert regions and incorporating vastly different cultures, the union is seeing that what may be a market commodity in one country is a health issue in another.

"On this issue, we can't even really understand each other," said Dr. Gunar Agren, the executive manager of Sweden's National Institute of Health. "We just see things very differently and in fact we have different problems with alcohol.

"Here we come from a tradition of drinking where people beat each other up and even get killed over drinking. You talk to the Italians and they don't see that. Drinking has been a part of their way of life for 1,000 years and they think young people need to be taught to drink."

During the worst period of abuse in Sweden in the mid-1800's, the country had more than 175,000 distilling machines for a population of about eight million, and consumption was estimated at almost 49 quarts of alcohol per adult per year compared with about 9.5 today. Finally, the labor movement and the temperance movement converged, embracing slogans like "You cannot stagger to freedom," which were popular in the United States too.

These social forces gave birth to measures that were unimaginable in southern European countries like France and Italy. For nearly 40 years, until 1955, Swedes had to have ration cards to buy liquor. When Sweden voted to join the European Union in 1995, the government still had a monopoly on production and both wholesale and retail distribution of spirits, which allowed it to keep prices high and availability low. A 700 milliliter bottle of Beefeater gin costs about $12 in France, about $32 in Sweden.

Experts say that the strictures were effective in reducing drinking.

But they did little to reshape Sweden's real problem: the way in which people view alcohol.

While southern Europeans tend to incorporate drinking with eating and find outward signs of intoxication embarrassing, the tradition in Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries, is to drink less often but with the intention of getting drunk.

While their southern counterparts have more long-term health problems that are associated with drinking, the Swedish drinking pattern leads to high rates of violence, accidents, suicide, homicide and addiction, experts say.

The way beer is labeled demonstrates the difference in attitudes. Finding the alcohol content on most beers produced in Europe is a question of searching out the fine print. Most hover at about 5 percent.

The alcohol content of Swedish beer varies widely, ranging up to 10 percent, and the numbers are usually emblazoned on the cans in bigger lettering than the brand name.

"The Nordic style of drinking is problematic," said Robin Room, an alcoholism expert at the Center for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs. "People here value intoxication. You hear people here say they are going to get drunk this weekend, which you do not hear in southern European countries. In the south, they drink, in many cases, more, but it is a quiet problem. Here it produces very public social problems."

As Sweden has been forced to rethink its approach to the issue, it has been able to negotiate over some of the changes Europe requires. While it has had to give up its monopoly on production and wholesale distribution of alcohol, it has been able to keep its monopoly on retail stores as long as it makes more products available and expands store hours.

It was also able to negotiate a step- by-step increase in the amount of alcohol that Swedes can buy in countries with lower taxes and then bring home.

The Swedes have until 2004 to match the rest of the union's member countries. But officials hope that they can influence the rest of the European Union to see alcohol as a health problem. Increasingly, the southern countries too are seeing a rise in binge drinking among the youth.

"We are getting some of their drinking and they are getting some of ours," said Maria Renstrom, an expert on alcohol policy with the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. "So maybe we will be able to find common ground."

In the meantime, however, Swedish officials have fashioned a new anti-alcohol plan that focuses on education, including programs for pregnant women, tough drunk driving laws, tougher regulations governing serving drinks to minors and a ban on liquor advertising.

Yet even the ban on advertising is under attack. In early March, the European Court of Justice upheld the view that the ban was an obstacle to the free movement of services within union countries and therefore contravened the European Union treaty.

Some Swedish politicians applaud the changes and say that more will come soon.

The alcohol industry says that the black market accounts for a steep drop in the legitimate sales of liquor over the last five years.

For some this is a strong argument for quick removal of the high taxes. "Around one-third of the alcohol sold here today is criminal alcohol," said Leif Carlson, a conservative member of the Swedish Parliament. "And a lot of things follow this. Mafia behavior, violence. People have to see the facts. Life has changed. We can't get rid of alcohol; it is in society."

At a rehabilitation center in the working-class suburb of Bandhagen outside Stockholm, the destruction that alcohol abuse can cause is visible every day. But even here opinions vary on what Sweden should do. Some of the social workers say the changes won't make any difference to their clients: the truly addicted have always managed to get alcohol no matter what. Others believe the government must act to protect the public health.

But everyone recognizes that the old restrictions really are not possible anymore.

"We used to be isolated and now we aren't anymore," said Lennart Johnk, who has worked with alcoholics for 20 years. "The world is changing and that is good, but as social workers I think we are going to have more problems."