STOCKHOLM — Sweden's 150-year-old temperance movement has been so successful in wresting this country from the Vodka Belt, people like to say that more Swedes live from alcohol now than die from it.
With Europe's highest taxes on tipples, the welfare state's coffers get an annual infusion of $1.3 billion from drink sales--and the resulting high prices have depressed consumption and alcohol-related deaths and illnesses to one of the lowest levels in the developed world.
But those enviable achievements are now under assault in the name of consumer harmony on the Continent. The European Union's trade policies have forced Sweden to ease restrictions on alcohol imports, which could drastically cut domestic revenue from state-monopoly wine, beer and spirits sales unless the government agrees to lower taxes to make purchases here competitive with neighboring countries.
The changes imposed by EU membership also coincide with an emerging sentiment among the responsible-drinking majority in this nation of 8.9 million that it is their business--not the government's--how much they consume in the safety and privacy of their homes.
"The voices speaking against the 'Big Brother' issue have become stronger since we joined the Union," Bjoern Hibell, director of the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Narcotics, says of the changing public attitudes since Sweden became an EU member in 1995.
Inspired by a history of massive alcohol abuse in the 19th century, the Swedish government has long assumed the role of moral judge and has used taxes and import restrictions to discourage Swedes from drinking.
But Hibell and others charged with analyzing Swedish drinking behavior contend that many Swedes are tolerant of the alcohol tax bite because they recognize the hidden costs of health care for abusers as well as lost labor efficiency and drinking's contribution to violent crime.
"If you want to be an alcoholic, that's your business, of course. But most people think alcohol problems are not just a problem for the individual but for the whole society," says Bjoern Rydberg, spokesman for the state-owned Systembolaget monopoly on alcohol sales and distribution.
Officials are weighing an alcohol tax cut in the face of slumping revenues in southern Sweden since July, when the new import quotas kicked in and a bridge to Denmark opened, allowing consumers to save mightily by doing their booze shopping abroad and taking advantage of more liberal personal import volumes. Without tax relief, Swedes will spend their liquor kroner elsewhere, depriving the country of income that might be used to combat drinking's related health problems.
An Alcohol Action Plan submitted this fall to the Riksdag, Sweden's parliament, puts off the divisive tax issue until spring but earmarks about $45 million for local public awareness projects and self-help groups for abusers.
Research across Europe, however, consistently shows that pricing policies, monopoly control, a higher minimum drinking age and low blood-alcohol driving limits are vastly more effective in reducing consumption than information campaigns, says Sven-Olov Carlsson, president of Sweden's chapter of the International Order of Good Templars.
"The sad thing is that all the discussion now is about Sweden moving toward the EU position, while it would make more sense for other European countries to take steps toward Sweden," Carlsson says.
While that isn't in the cards, he predicts that EU enlargement to include the heavy-drinking populations of Eastern Europe will force the alliance to put public health concerns above those of trade and agriculture now driving the drinking debate.
Carlsson recently traveled to Latvia, the tiny Baltic state that is among the candidates for EU membership, where he was appalled to discover that there are 40,000 shops authorized to sell alcohol for the 2.3 million people, compared with 411 stores throughout Sweden, which has four times Latvia's population.
The temperance leader also bemoans the mixed message that Sweden sends abroad with the highly successful marketing and sales of Absolut vodka--a product of the wholly state-owned Vin & Sprit company that is forbidden to promote its flagship tipple in the homeland.
Sweden's powerful temperance movement grew out of the enormous abuses prevalent in the mid-19th century, when manual laborers like miners and loggers were often paid in spirits.
Per capita consumption of liquor at that time was 46 liters a year--about six times today's level in Sweden and three times that of the Continent's heaviest drinkers, in Portugal, Luxembourg, France, Ireland and Germany. Of 39 developed countries tracked by Swedish researchers, the United States ranks 26th in per capita consumption, with Sweden No. 31 and Turkey the most abstemious of those studied.