The Swedish Alcohol Monopoly That Doesn’t Really Want To Sell Alcohol

Swedes are known to be liberal – so how can they accept that only one retail store in the country is allowed to sell alcohol? And that they can only buy it during restricted weekday hours, until 3pm on Saturdays, and not at all on Sundays or holidays? With Midsummer – the biggest party of the year – approaching this weekend, we look into how the state monopoly on alcohol works and how the Swedes really feel about it.

When compared to the rest of the world, the business of alcohol in Sweden is certainly unusual. Who would have thought that there could be a solid business in telling people not to buy what you are selling?

Systembolaget (the state monopoly on alcohol) exists for one reason: to minimize alcohol- related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive. Our mandate is to limit the medical and social harm caused by alcohol and thereby improve public health, says Evelina Westblom, Store Manager at Systembolaget in Liljeholmen, Stockholm.

Systembolaget has one of the most comprehensive product assortments in the world. It has also produced acclaimed advertising campaigns advocating less and more responsible social drinking. Here’s one campaign quote: “Our products can make you ugly, fat, and unhappy (Which we wouldn’t have told you if we were privately owned.)”.

GetFileExtended_convertedWhat are the flipsides then, besides the limited opening hours? If you’re a smaller wine producer or brewery – having only one buyer and distributor of alcohol for an entire country could be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your position, as Swedish wine importer Michael Wising explains:

Systembolaget is both good and bad, depending on whether you are “in or out”. If you are selling wines to the monopoly, it is very good… but if you are not successful in getting the listings with them, you don’t really have a lot of alternatives.

As you can see in the film, individual opinions vary on the state monopoly of alcohol. However, the yearly national survey, Opinion Index (OPI) showed that in 2015, 77 percent of the Swedish public supported Systembolaget and its right to exclusivity.

In many ways, Systembolaget mirrors the values of the Swedish welfare state, which may be why Swedes accept certain limitations of their freedom (in this case, the possibility to buy alcohol everywhere and at any time), for the greater good of a healthier society.

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