Alcohol Politics: A Few Thoughts

Recently in the comments over on the Cedar Lounge Revolution the topic of the Temperance movement in Sweden came up off the back of my invocation of the Swedish state-run chain of off-licences called the ‘Systembolaget’. As a sort of continuation of that theme I decided to read a bit about alcohol politics in Sweden and Ireland.

1. Sweden: Alcohol Rationing and commodification

An interesting academic paper I came across during this spate of reading was entitled: “The abolition of the Swedish alcohol rationing system: effects on consumption distribution and cirrhosis mortality” by Thor Norström of Stockholm University. It’s needless to say that this isn’t exactly meant for ordinary reading, indeed much of the paper’s nine pages are concerned with statistical modelling, though never the less it does contain some intriguing information, not the least of which is the basic notion that Sweden operated an alcohol rationing system from the 1920s straight through till the mid 1950s.

The basic premise of the paper was whether the abolition of rationing resulted in more deaths due to cirrhosis and whether the general number of ‘heavy consumers’ increased, the answer to each of those questions appears to have been yes. For context the rationing system gave people, excluding married women, an allowance of between 1 and 4 litres of spirits per month depending on ‘social circumstances’, though with the catch that this is not applied to alcohol bought in restaurants and on the black market, the latter for obvious reasons. Again for context I’ll give an example as to what that ration means in terms of actual alcohol. 4 litres of spirits, the maximum, at the industry standard of 40% ABV (Alcohol by Volume) translates out at 36.92 UK units per week, 160 per month and 1,920 per year; while the Irish ‘standard drinks’ work out as 29.07 per week, 125.98 per month and 1,511.81 per year. To make that even simpler I’ll take pints of Guinness to be the format Irish drinkers will understand the simplest, in which case the allowance translates to 15.48 pints per week, 67.07 per month and 804.83 per year based on a pint (568ml) of 4.2% ABV Guinness.

The paper was written in 1987 and gives its definition of a heavy consumer as someone who drinks 100ml of pure (i.e. 100% ABV) alcohol per day, I’ll save people the tedious maths and just state that that is the equivalent of 70 UK units or 55.12 Irish ‘standard drinks’ per week. This is above the current definition of a high risk drinker as considered by the Health Service Executive of Ireland which is defined as someone for drinks more than 41 ‘standard drinks’ per week for a man or more than 29 for a woman. Their starting point for ‘increased risk’ is 17 ‘standard drinks’ for a man and 11 for a woman. So the maximum ration exceeds the threshold at which the HSE would define a drinker as not being at risk but falls well short of the HSE’s current definition of a high risk drinker for men and on the button for women. I raise this as the paper’s conclusion that both the amount of alcohol being consumed by heavy drinkers and the number of cirrhosis deaths increased after rationing was abolished clearly shows that a rationing system can prevent alcohol related deaths and health problems amongst the general population whilst not impacting on the consumption patterns of ‘moderate’ drinkers. Whether or not such a system could or, indeed, should be introduced in Ireland is a matter of debate based around the question of whether the state, as the extended arm of the public, should initiate policies that benefit general public health whilst simultaneously depriving people of the right to drink themselves into oblivion, an important consideration in our northern climes.

An additional aspect of this paper that has interest is the reference to the temperance movement being opposed to the rationing system on the basis that it hard-wired alcohol in the social landscape, not an unusual opinion for anti-alcohol extremists to have though, but still an interesting fact nonetheless.

Another paper of interest, also written by Thor Norström but with the assistance of Mats Ramstedt, is a paper called “Sweden – is alcohol becoming an ordinary commodity?“. It was written in 2006 and contains information about the effect of Sweden’s entry into the European Union on alcohol policy and consumption, along with information on the changes between the 1950s and the 1990s. Included amongst its many facts is the interesting thought that the increase in personal import quotas from other EU member states to a level that makes them redundant resulted in an increase in the proportion of total per capita alcohol consumption coming from imports from one-tenth in 1996 to one-third in 2004; in addition to which total per capita consumption increased from 8 litres of pure alcohol to 10.4 litres in that same time period. The paper ends by referencing an EU court case in which Sweden’s state-run off-licence chain, Systembolaget, was under threat from internet retailing, at the time of the paper’s publication (2006) it was an unresolved situation. However in 2007 it was finally ruled that blocking the ordering of alcohol without Systembolaget being the intermediary was against the EU’s rules on the free movement of goods;  a summary of the judgement can be found in this linked press release.

2. Ireland: Alcohol Policy: a tale on commercial intransigence

On the subject of Ireland’s relationship to alcohol I found a paper written by Dr. Ann Hope, with copious references to a previous paper she wrote along with the aforementioned Mats Ramstedt, that gives a fairly interesting blow-by-blow account on the machinations in Irish government policy on alcohol. The paper is entitled: “The influence of the alcohol industry on alcohol policy in Ireland“. It was published in 2006 and contains information for the time period leading up to then with detailed information for as far back as the 1990s.

A first consideration here is the fact given on page 2 that alcohol consumption in Ireland increased between 1989 and 2002 by 50%, an increase that seems on the face of it quite high when compared to the increase we’ve already seen in Sweden during the 1990s and 2000s. Perhaps it could be argued that the greater quantity of commercial lobbyists and interested parties in Ireland compared to Sweden is responsible as in Sweden producer and consumer lobbying wasn’t accompanied by retail lobbying to the same degree given they maintained a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol for off-premises consumption. Although an economic argument also has to be played here with €1 billion in tax paid on alcohol in 2005, and the best part of 90,000 full and part time jobs in licensed premises in 2004 (p. 3).

As far as outright lobbying goes, the commercial interests in Ireland seem to have had a reasonable good time of it with the Vintners & Irish Hotel Federation successfully organising a protest movement against the Road Traffic Act 1994, getting its 2 year ban on people convicted of drink driving offences reduced to 3 months, derisory. On this subject, the introduction of breath testing apparently resulted in a 22% reduction road deaths in July 2006 compared to the previous year (p. 5). Though they didn’t get their way with alcohol taxation in 2002 with a 42% increase in the tax on spirits, which resulted in an overall reduction of alcohol consumption of 6% in 2003 and a reduction in spirits sales of 20.1%. The Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI), who are an umbrella organisation for the drinks producers, consistently contested scientific evidence presented by the Strategic Task Force on Alcohol (SFTA) on many topics related to regulatory intervention, including the idea that higher taxes on alcohol lead to a reduction in consumption, something that seems ridiculous considering those 2003 figures above; below is a quote from one of their press releases in relation to an SFTA report from 2004:

DIGI takes issue with the recommendation by the Task Force that excise duty should be increased with a view to reducing overall consumption… There is no established link between higher excise duty and reduced levels of alcohol abuse.

Mind you Diageo seem to have been the worst offenders when it comes to throwing their weight around with frequent copying-in of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to letters sent to government ministers objecting to government policy and the public pronouncements of these ministers, an example of which can be found on page 7.

3. Personal Thoughts

While all the above has an interesting ring about it, not least the efficacy of taxation and rationing in lowering high-end consumption, there is inherently a question about whether hard-line policies would actually be necessary if the producers were producing the kinds of drinks that would be geared towards providing drinkers with something to keep themselves occupied. In Ireland it’s quite difficult to get your hands on beers that are lower than 4% ABV, for me this creates a problem as sometimes I might want to drink a fairly large amount in terms of liquid over a good few hours without taking in an equally large amount of alcohol. Four 500ml cans (2 UK units each) of a 4% ABV beer, amounts to 8 UK units of alcohol (6.3 standard drinks), which above the Irish definition of a binge (5 standard drinks) and right bang on the UK definition; though nobody is going to argue that what amounts to only 2 litres of liquid is excessive surely? For comparison a 3.6% ABV beer, which is what the current generation of English bitters are levelling out at, would yield only 7.2 UK units and 5.67 standard drinks for that four can example. Certainly it’s still above the Irish definition of a binge, but it does bring us in below the UK’s definition. And of course if you can’t get your hands on a 4% ABV beer, not an outrageous idea considering that 4.3% ABV is more common, you’re in an even worse position. That industry refusal to make lower ABV beers available is a conundrum that is unlikely to be solved without either a move towards craft breweries, something that can’t leave the high-brow arena for both cost and snobbery reasons, or more effectively a move towards alcohol production being placed in public control either through direct worker ownership or indirect state ownership.

I should say that most of the academic papers linked to and written about above have come from the academic journal “Nordic studies on Alcohol and Drugs” published by the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues; the Journal and all its articles are freely available at the De Gruyter website. All I can say is that it’s an absolute goldmine for anyone considering these issues, I could have written a piece ten-times longer if I had wanted, or had the time, to quote it more extensively.