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The Swedes and alcohol – about drinking in Sweden

Alcohol in Sweden – Systembolaget

Sweden is not only known for IKEA, ABBA and Volvo but also for its high alcohol prices. Why does alcohol cost so much in Sweden and what do Swedes generally think about the consumption of alcohol? In short, the Swedes have their own, ambivalent relationship to alcohol. In this post you can read more about the role of alcohol in Sweden.

Prices for alcohol: Sweden vs. Germany

The difference between for example the German and the Swedish prices for alcohol can be immense.

  • A bottle of Absolut Vodka: Germany 12 Euro, Sweden 239 SEK which is about 27 EUR
  • A 0,33l can of beer, König Pilsener, costs 9,40 SEK, 1,07 EUR in Sweden. In Germany you can buy one liter of the same brand for the same amount. That’s three times as much as you get in Sweden.
  • A bottle of Baileys, 0,7 liter, costs about 12 EUR in Germany, in Sweden the same bottle costs almost twice as much – 199 SEK (23 EUR).

Because the alcohol is so expensive in Sweden , it doesn’t surprise that the people use to import it from other countries.

Alcohol import – “Let’s make a trip to Germany”

South-western neighbor, Denmark, for example offers cheaper drinks – but yet it still costs a more than in Germany. About 50% of the privately imported alcohol derives from Germany. The price difference is considered as high enough that people find it worth the effort of going by car or bus, crossing the Öresund-bridge, Danmark and finally going to Puttgarden by ferry, only to reach one of the many liqueur stores just behind the border which are specialised for Scandinavian “alcohol-tourists”. Those stores charge usually a little more than the local supermarkets for the beverages – the Swedes obviously don’t mind when they are in their gold-/alcohol-rush. Tip for Swedes: So if you are a Swede and want to buy cheap alcohol in Germany – drive a little further into the villages and town to find one of the local supermarkets like ALDI, LIDL, Plus, Penny etc. These alcohol trips are so popular that student organisations at universities in the south of Sweden offer bus trips to German bordershops. If you ever went with the ferry from Germany to Denmark or directly to Sweden, you might have noticed a unusually large amount of Volvo V70 station wagons, with the rear wheels disappearing behind the wheel arches, the luggage space – with the down-folded rear seats – fully stuffed with beer pallets, wine boxes and liqueur bottles. In short, Swedes on their way home after a “Germany-trip”. So if you ever wondered why so many Swedes favor these roomy station wagons – now you know why.

How to buy alcohol in Sweden – Welcome to Systembolaget!

And because the price-conscious Swedes have to pay so much for their alcohol, wine bottles are sorted after the price first and then after the country of origin. Systembolaget – or “systemet” as it is colloquially called – is the only country wide chain that sells alcohol – apart from beer (folköl) an cider that contains no more than 3,5% percent of alcohol, which can be sold in supermarkets and gas stations as well. If you are in Sweden, invited to a dinner at a friend and want to buy a bottle of wine on a Saturday afternoon – bad luck. Systembolaget mostly closes around 3 p.m. on Saturdays and is closed all Sunday. Which is why you can see many Swedes pilgrimage to their local store on Friday afternoons to buy ahead for the weekend.   The Systembolaget is a state owned monopoly for all alcoholic drinks for more than 3,5 percent of alcohol. Sure you can get your glas of wine or vodka in local pub but you are not allowed to take out alcohol of any of these places. The Swedes are very strict when it comes to access of alcohol. One has to be in the age of 18 to be allowed to drink any alcohol. To buy it in Systembolaget one has to be age 20. Systembolaget in Sweden When you go shopping at Systembolaget it is very usual that the cashier requests to have a look at your ID to verify your age – unless you look older than, say, thirty. Actually the cashiers have to check everyones’ ID if they believe that a customer could possibly be age 25 or lower. So, yes, if you’re older than that and you get asked to show your ID, you may take it as a compliment.

Alcoholism in Sweden

Many Swedes consider the regulation of access to alcohol through Systembolaget as necessary because otherwise they expect that even more people become alcoholics. About 4,4% of the Swedish population has an alcohol-related disease or addiction. Which is why the Swedish state tries to reduce and limit the consumption, not least through high prices in Systembolaget or tax. Researchers believe that opening the alcohol market for private businesses could possibly lead to an increase of alcohol consumption of about 30% – maybe even long term.

Skål! – Drinking behavior in Sweden

Swedes have different follow different patterns when it comes consumption of alcohol than, say, Germans have. During the week, or the days before work, it is rather uncommon in Sweden to drink a glass of wine or bottle of beer in the evening. From Monday to Thursday two-third of the population are completely abstinent from any alcohol (SCB). If you drink alcohol during these days, even if it is just a glass of wine, you might get critical looks from your friends. Some might even assume that you are in danger of becoming an alcoholic. But the amounts of drinks that the Swedes stay away from during the week is quickly compensated by drinking higher quantities during the weekend. To see very drunk people on Friday and Saturdays nights on the streets of the inner cities and in front of the pubs is very common. Particularly at closing hour – around 2 a.m. at night – when most pubs have to close, people stumble out of the pubs on their way to the nearest bus stop or taxi. Party = drinking Many Swedes feel the pressure of having to drink alcohol to be able to go out, be social and party. They consider party = drinking. Going to a Swedish night club without being at least a little tipsy is almost unimaginable for many Swedes. If you stand at a bar and order a soda on a weekend you might get comments from people around you asking “Are you going by car?“. To get in the right mood Swedes meet at pre-parties with friends, also because it is much cheaper way to get drunk than buying the expensive drinks in the Swedish bars and clubs. The concept of having a “white week” or “-month”, which means being abstinent from alcohol for certain period of time, is widely spread in Sweden.

Swedish alcohol law and penalties

In most Swedish municipalities it is forbidden to drink alcohol in the public. Getting caught doing it means having to pay a fine, 500 SEK (about 56 Euros) . But in many cases the police simply confiscates the drink and pours it out. If you want to drive car, be aware that the legal blood alcohol limit in Sweden is 0,2 per mill (Swedens’ alcohol law, alkohollag). If you have 0,3 or more, the police will take your drivers license for up to one year. Getting caught with 1,0 or more, and you might probably be jailed. (Vägverket) Driving car after drinking alcohol – even if it is just a glass of beer – is condemned by many Swedes. When you meet your Swedish friends for a dinner in a restaurant and you want to offer them to drive them home, make sure that you haven’t been drinking anything at all, otherwise they may feel great discomfort.

The Swedes and their ambivalent relationship to alcohol

To sum things up, Swedes have an ambivalent relationship to alcohol and drinking. They often drink either nothing at all or a lot. Alcohol and drinking is a big topic of the Swedish society. On one hand Swedes glorify it for “letting them be who they really are” (as the slogan of a popular Swedish beer brand claims) – which means it helps them temporarily getting rid of their shyness and letting them overcome their daily life social distance, bringing them closer together – on the other hand they are afraid of alcoholism and all the drawbacks that come along with excessive alcohol consumption.   What is your opinion about drinking in Sweden? What did you experience? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.



4 thoughts on “The Swedes and alcohol – about drinking in Sweden

  1. As a Swiss I think quite differently about alcoholism. Grape production and therefore wine is a major industry here.
    I think the authorities should not to try to limit the consumption of alcohol. If a person has a problem, it does not depend on alcohol prices.
    Sweden has chosen a wrong way. All people living a bit more in the south of Sweden including their goverments think the same.

  2. All addicts can get hold of expensive substances, legal ones or illicit ones. The prices are NOT a barrier for addicts. If someone wants dollars for drugs, he’ll steal beg or borrow several tens of thousands each year. If a respectable Swede is wealthy the price of alcohol alone will be no deterrent in how excessively he consumes.

    Instead of making all beverages a special ‘vice’ with these highly-taxed prices to splurge on, why not promote much more moderate, regular drinking appreciating the qualities of wine and beer, and fine cocktails. Take away the stigma. This requires a shift of cultural mindset to enjoy sip and share rather than to frantically ‘use’ alcohol to get drunk a few times a week.

    Health fact: small daily amounts of alcohol are an anti-oxidant – good for cellular health! – while larger amounts reverse the benefit and have an oxidative effect on the body. Swedish binge drinking is killing those people drinking the same amount of alcohol, too much at once!
    Cheers from Canada.

  3. Hi, Matthias. That’s a very nice post. I am researching about this subject. I would like to know more about beer advertising in Sweden, but can’t really find any credible information about it. Can you please help me in any way?

  4. Hi, Matthias. That’s a very nice post. I am researching about this subject. I would like to know more about beer advertising in Sweden (laws, major breweries), but can’t really find any credible information about it. Can you please help me in any way?

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