Monday, October 5, 2009
BBC Scotland's Health Correspondent Eleanor Bradford travels to Sweden to discover how the Swedish government has tackled binge drinking and looks at the impact it has had.
All alcohol stores in Sweden are owned by the government
Over recent months there's been a steady stream of stories about the damage caused in Scotland by widespread alcohol abuse. But what's the solution?
Perhaps we should look north-east, to a country very similar to our own, but with far fewer alcohol-related problems: Sweden.
Research has shown that, given the opportunity, both Scots and Swedes binge drink. Yet the average Swede consumes 9 litres of pure alcohol per year, compared with 12 for the average Scot.
I arrive on an important night. The Swedish football team is playing Hungary in the World Cup qualifier.
The pubs are packed, and I ask one fan how much he intends to drink. "Tonight I will have one, or maybe two pints," he says, "but my friend will drink two, I swear!"
I tell him that a football fan in a Scottish pub will probably drink eight pints or more. "You know, just before this match I was watching a documentary about the UK," he says, "...it was called 'hooligans'." Swedes have grown used to a system of heavy state intervention which controls both the price and availability of alcohol
So why does a football fan here seem perfectly happy with one pint? Swedes have grown used to a system of heavy state intervention which controls both the price and availability of alcohol.
Next stop is central Stockholm. All liquor stores here are owned by the government. I meet Sven Andreasson who is a practising doctor and leads the Swedish government's department of public health.
"Our own research indicates that the 'Systembolaget' monopoly reduces consumption by 25-30%," he tells me. "As a consequence it also reduces alcohol related problems."
What immediately strikes me is the huge range of alcohol on offer.
The government is not allowed to discriminate against any producer, so it stocks nearly everything. That range is available whether you live in central Stockholm or the far reaches of the north.
The range of alcohol on offer in Sweden is extensive
Wine and beer is only a few pounds more expensive than in Scotland - although spirits are significantly more.
"Ten years ago the majority of people in Sweden wanted to do away with the Systembolaget," Mr Andreasson tells me. "That has changed, and now it's the reverse. There's a general perception that this is good for public health, and the Systembolaget provides good service."
The next day I take a train and travel 170 kilometres north of Stockholm. Just outside the town of Gavle is Sweden's first whisky distillery. Government controls have brought advantages and disadvantages for "Mackmyra" Whisky.
"We have tastings but we cannot sell our bottles here," explains marketing manager Lars Lindberger. "We can sell only books, glasses, T-shirts and merchandise."
Mackmyra is lobbying the government to relax the restrictions on distilleries selling their own product.
Other than that, the Systembolaget has played a significant part in making this young company successful. "We sell to one person and he controls 400 stores and nine million customers, so for us it works really really great," Mr Lindberger adds.
The Swedish system is not a complete solution.
I spot a group of alcoholics waiting for the Systembolaget store to open at 10am, and even the average Swede is drinking more.
However, the streets are quiet at night, and I feel far safer walking home.
"It takes political skill and motivation to control alcohol problems," Sven Andreasson tells me. "But our policies are based on research which shows the most powerful tools to control alcohol problems in a nation involve price and availability."
I don't think we will see this kind of government involvement here in the USA in my lifetime. Crime and poor health is what binge drinking gives society. What a sad thing this kind of drinking is. It certainly has nothing to do with socializing like having a friendly pint once did. To make it worse the women drink as hard as the men. Both of my Brothers nearly lost their lives to drinking. Both no longer will take a drink. I still like a drink once in awhile. I don't find getting pissing drunk fun and never have.
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