Ever since arriving in Stockholm, I have been intrigued by Swedes’ relationship with alcohol. Sweden has a long and complicated history with alcohol, from problems with everyone always being slightly drunk to intense state control. The more I learn about the history of drinking culture in Sweden, the more I am convinced that everyone in Sweden should have a rocky relationship with alcohol, but from what I see and read, most Swedes seem to have a healthy relationship to alcohol.
Coming from a college campus I often find myself thinking about different people’s relationships to alcohol. Alcohol consumption, especially among young people in the U.S., continues to be a problem. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 26.9 percent of people over the age of 18 have participated in binge drinking in the past month.
I was curious to see how Sweden’s history with alcohol-related to their current relationship to alcohol so I dove a little deeper into the history.
During the 19th century, anyone in Sweden had the right to produce, sell, and consume alcohol, and they did. Alcohol consumption levels were very high, and so was the rate of alcohol-related crimes. Churches and the government saw this as a morality problem and worried about the depravity of the lower classes. In response, the Swedish government attempted to control alcohol consumption through strict penalties for alcohol-related crimes like public intoxication or disorderly conduct. This system failed to reduce overall alcohol consumption in Sweden.
Sweden then created a national alcohol monopoly, removing the right of individual citizens to produce and sell alcohol. This also failed to fix the alcohol problem. During the early 20th century there was talk of a complete prohibition of alcohol, but instead they turned to a ration system.
Every Swedish citizen was given an alcohol ration book which controlled how much alcohol they could buy each month. Every time they went to the liquor store it was marked in their book. This system was in place from 1919 until 1955, when public protests forced the system to be abolished.
The ration system was abolished, but the monopoly on alcohol stayed. All alcoholic drinks with an alcohol content higher than 3.5 percent must be sold in a “Systembolaget,” a state-owned liquor store monopoly.
Systembolaget is still used today to help control alcohol consumption within the nation. Although Systembolaget is hated by many citizens, who complain about the lack of a free alcohol market, Sweden’s alcohol consumption has actually begun to decline in recent years.
In my time here I have observed that Swedish people our age have a different relationship with alcohol. It may be that I do not attend a residential college, but I do not see many drunk people around Stockholm. Whether I am at a party hosted by the school or at a club in downtown Stockholm, I do not see wasted people. When I mentioned this to my friends here, they all agreed. This could be because alcohol is ridiculously expensive at clubs, but I think it is more than that. Swedish people just don’t like getting blackout drunk.
Anyone who has been on Swarthmore’s campus, or really any American college campus, has seen that many Americans do not have a healthy relationship with alcohol. Of course, many people drink responsibly on Swarthmore’s campus, but there is still a significant population that does not. Every Sunday morning we all hear stories of people who drank too much and ended up sick or making a terrible decision, these are not the kind of stories I hear in Sweden, and when I do it is of the American students.
Swarthmore in no way has an unusually unhealthy relationship with alcohol. In fact, there are many things that make drinking at Swarthmore safer than in a lot of other places. The problem with drinking on Swarthmore’s campus is not the existence of underage drinking, but the way that it is done. Students work so hard to make sure they are not caught drinking that they make the dangerous decision to binge drink in their dorms instead. It is not just students, either — Americans as a whole do not have a very healthy relationship with alcohol.
Why is it that the drinking culture in the U.S., including at Swarthmore, is so much worse than in countries like Sweden? I believe that the drinking age in the U.S. plays a big part in fostering unhealthy relationships with alcohol. In Sweden anyone over the age of 18 can buy a drink at a restaurant and anyone who is over 20 can buy alcohol at Systembolaget. Since the drinking age in the U.S. is 21 in almost all cases, some people in college can legally drink while others cannot.
The drinking age provides an incentive for binge drinking. Students want to be able to go out and have a good time but they know they may not be able to get alcohol while they are out, so they binge drink. Instead of going into Philly to have a few drinks and a good time, students take several shots in a dorm before going out to a party on campus. This kind of binge drinking can lead to serious health complications.
Drinking alcohol is not a bad thing. Many people find healthy ways to consume alcohol, and it can even have positive effects on one’s life by fostering social relationships, but it is important that people consume alcohol a healthy way.
There are things we learn from the Swedish system. For example, since 18-year-olds in Sweden can get alcohol at a restaurant but not in Systembologet, they are forced to drink more responsibly. They know they will be able to get alcohol while they are out, so they do not feel the need to binge drink before going out, and bartenders go through training to know when to stop serving someone if the customer is drunk they will not be served.
Americans’ relationship to alcohol is not going to change overnight, but realizing that there is a problem and that it doesn’t have to be this way is the first step towards fixing it. I recognize that the law puts Swarthmore in an uncomfortable position when it comes to alcohol consumption, but recognizing that students on campus are going to drink and investing effort into providing opportunities and spaces for students to do this safely is a good first step. If students were allowed to bring their own alcohol to parties on campus, it could reduce the pressure to pre-game heavily. In addition, Pub Safe could focus their enforcement mechanisms, looking more closely not just at what kind of alcohol is being consumed, but also how it is being consumed. Instead of banning all hard liquor or all drinking games, focus on preventing things like Everclear and shots for the sake of shots.
Swarthmore may be limited in what it permits on campus, but it is possible to tweak the current rules and regulations to allow safer drinking practices.