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.

 

20 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.

    • Actually, we got the alcohol policy as a reaction to wide spread alcohol problems back in the days. And it worked. Thing is though, down on the continent people drink predominantly wine and bear, while up in Sweden we traditionally drink hard liquor, and that is part of the reason we have the tradition of drinking simply to get drunk. Now, thanks to the alcohol policy in Sweden that is changing, people are slowly adopting an alcohol culture of drinking less, but more often, and once that is firmly established, we can probably adjust our laws and lower the prices. But many of us still have a tendency to binge drink. So no, in my opinion (and I am a Swede), we have not chosen “a wrong way”, and there are studies to back me up here if you care to google it.

  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?

  5. germany shouldnt be their fall back country for whiskey. The economy of sweden would be way better off if they lowered prices and allowed normal consumption of the rum. Although, the crime rates could increase, job loss, and over all distibance of the peace. Every country has their own opinions on it, sweden has good reasons for why they do what they do. Works for them, but if america adopts it ill leave. Probably to russia.

  6. As a swede I agree that it’s sensible to have higher prices, we do tend to binge drink and it won’t change simply because we try to promote ”healthier” alchohol consumption and lower the prices so people will buy wine and drink a glass, it will just promote the binging instead. Different cultures react differently, and seeing how we almost drank our lifes away in history I’m not too keen to have our prices change.
    I’m slightly furious as how the others have reacted to this post actually, you simply do not understand how swedish people have their relationship with alchohol at all and I can firmly say that it will not help to lower the prices at all, it will just promote dealers for minors to sell more and minors to buy more, it still happens but not as much as it would if the prices would be lower.

  7. The Spanish people do not seem to have a problem,we go to a fiesta, glass of wine 1 euro, whiskey 2 euro,never noticed anyone stumbling around,in our small town on the weekend lots of joviality,BUT no violence,My wife and I would really like to move to Sweden (And we like a drink) but if the Archaic laws will never change !!!! ?

  8. There is no law in Sweden that says you must be 18 to drink alcohol except in a pub, but you can not carry on alcohol or buy and if a cop sees you carrying alcohol, they have the right to take it away from you. but if you are drunk and the police think you’re a danger to yourself or someone else, they’ll drive you home and talk to your parents.

    ( I am studying law and am from Sweden)

  9. I can see so many similarities with the Finnish alcohol-culture. Our equivalent to Systembolaget is called “Alko”, and the price of alcohol is also very high. It seems not to be socially acceptable to drink during the working days, but on weekends people get totally fucked up, just like in Sweden. Drinking in public is forbidden, but during the summer people drink in the parks and if they don’t disturb other people, police don’t usually care apart from if the drinkers appear to be underaged.

    Actually, the only major difference I can find is that in Finland one can buy alcohol of 4,7% (max) from grocery stores, whereas in Sweden the limit is 3,5%.

  10. That is a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol — it completely lacks moderation. By drinking nothing and then so much, it taxes your system and can cause damage to your body.

    Here in the U.S., it’s acceptable to drink at any day of the week. There is a liquor store near my house open late and on most days — it has a considerable selection of different liquors at pretty reasonable prices. I rarely drink, though. The only people I know who drink the way you say Swedes do, they have alcohol problems. They are either college kids without any sense of moderation or adults with a questionable and concerning relationship with alcohol.

    My parents exposed my sibling and I to alcohol at a younger age (perhaps 16 or 15) in order for us to learn our bodies and to learn what alcohol does to it. Neither of us — so far as I know — has had any of the moderation problems that others have had with alcohol. I have never gotten sick from alcohol, and certainly don’t feel any need to drink to “show my true self.” No way! Such a thing sounds terrible. I mean, if you can’t show your true self without the help of a mind-altering substance, then something is very wrong. You work on yourself and gain the courage to show who you are to others. You don’t attempt to shut off your self-consciousness through filling your body with alcohol, potentially damaging it. Such a thing would be thought of as a disease or disorder by most of the people that I know. I mean, there are people I know who feel the need to drink in order to open up, but people look at them with the recognition that they have a problem. There, you have a whole society full of people who seem to think this is acceptable, but that doesn’t make it so. A healthy person should be able to open up on their own. It takes strength to do that, and I for one, am a better person for standing on my own in that regard.

  11. There are people who claim that strong liquor laws are needed in Sweden to control alcohol abuse. With that in mind, I found the statistics listed here to be quite interesting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_alcohol_consumption_per_capita

    Sweden and the U.S. have equal per capita consumption of alcohol, but the laws in Sweden are much stricter than in the U.S. There may be cultural reasons for this discrepancy, but it’s still an interesting find.

    While binge drinkers do drink less often, the greater amounts of alcohol consumed are very dangerous to one’s health: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm — It’s much less safe than having an occasional drink here or there, during the week.

    • Thanks for the comment, J.D.! Those are great sources with interesting information to dig deeper into.

    • This is my, and I believe many others, view of alcohol as a Swede. Why drink it if you ain’t gonna get tipsy/drunk?

      As teenagers we mainly drink hard liqour, Vodka or anything strong enough to be used in a mixed drink. Strong Beer is also consumed. Oh and Moonshine. Teenagers drink to be drunk not for pleasure.
      This does not change much when we become students (college kids) only difference is some might drink some Whiskey for pleasure. But unlike teenagers who mostly only party once or twice per year (depends on where you live and what kind of friends you have ofc), Students party every weekend, or at least drink at every holiday (like Halloween, 1st of May, Midsummer, etc.).
      As adults we generally don’t party as often, personally I, as a young adult, might party maybe like 5 times a year, but I believe, most around my age (25), maybe party like 10 or 15 times a year, with the occasions getting fewer as your family grows and your age gets greater.

      When it comes to alcohol Swedes don’t live up to their word Lagom, it’s all or nothing.
      The only exception is beer, Light beer(lättöl) as we call it, is beer with max 2,25% alcohol, which is more or less thought of as soda. There is no age-restriction on it and no one thinks anything of it if you had 1 or 2 before getting into a car. (but if it was 3, most people would object I think.) If you are out on a restaurant and have a designated driver you might have a glass of Wine or a pint of strong Ale/Beer instead.

      This is my general view of alcohol consumption in Sweden, and I personally only drink alcohol if I intend on getting drunk. (I might drink some Whiskey without the intention on getting drunk on a particular Friday or Saturday)

      • Thanks for the great comment, Rune! Tack! Particularly the following quote: “When it comes to alcohol Swedes don’t live up to their word Lagom!” :D Quite funny! I guess I’ll mention it in one of my next books about Swedish culture :)

  12. Hej! Coming home to Hungary after a week long visit to Sweden, and researching this subject, I found this very interesting thread.
    I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by the discipline the Swedish society has in terms of alcohol. It’s not all black and white – not ALL Swedes will have a drinking problem, or damage their livers on weekends, just because they are not supposed to drink during weekdays. On the other hand, every Swedish home will have an O.P. Anderson, that is opened for Christmas and family gatherings.
    But by strict control the level of obvious and visible alcoholism is pushed down. Check out any park or subway in a large city in Eastern Europe, or US… In any large city, a drunkard won’t care what you think of them, just as in a village even an alcoholic will “pretend” not to be a drunkard.
    In Stockholm – except for a few teenagers who didn’t know their limit – I didn’t stumble upon groups of beggars, who spend their every penny on booze, laying around in metro stations and parks, pissing away their lives in every corner they get…
    You have to appreciate the fact that unlike most of the “liberal” Europe and US, this is practically not an issue in Sweden.

  13. I as a Swede don’t really have a problem with Systembolaget as such. They have a great assortment and if you cannot find what you are looking for, they might order it for you. The thing(s) I don’t like about it is that it is impossible to get a cold beer and drink it directly. I live in Lund (south of Sweden, univeristy town) and here it is allowed to drink in public. However, it is impossible to grab a cold beer and sit down in a park and enjoy it, because Systembolaget doesn’t sell cold beverages.

    Another thing that I don’t like about Systembolaget is the lousy opening hours. It is not nice to host a spontaneous dinner party and discover that you have no wine, and that you cannot purchase one because it is past 1500 hours.

    For the record, there are some trials now that local wine producers are allowed to sell their wine on their property, which was not the case before. I am quite liberal about this, and I think it is ridiculous that I cannot go to a wine producer and buy their wine directly from them, but I have to go to Systembolaget and get the bottle there instead.

    Summing up

    Systembolaget pros

    + Great assortment
    + Luxury products are not necessarily more expensive than elsewhere (due to no special tax for luxury items)

    Systembolaget cons

    – Poor opening hours
    – High prices
    – No cold beverages

    • Tack Erik! Haven’t missed the option to get a cold beer from Systembolaget, yet. At least the local supermarkets (ICA and Willys) offer a cold 3,5% beer from the cooling disk or fridge. I know, not the optimum, but great for spontaneous barbecues :) Cheers!

Leave a Comment