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Swedish alcohol monopoly worried about Finns' boozing

The Swedish alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, has complained about a proposed change in Finnish alcohol law because it might cause Finns to drink more. Finns already drink more than their neighbours in other Nordic countries, and that gap is likely to expand if Finland relaxes the rules on selling alcohol.

Sweden's alcohol monopoly is worried about Finns' drinking habits. Image: Sam Lindh / AOP

Sweden's state alcohol retailer Systembolaget is concerned about Finns' drinking, and has sent a comment to the European Commission outlining the risks to Finns' health if the Finnish parliament passes a proposed alcohol reform.

At present, anything stronger than 4.7 percent alcohol by volume must be sold by the state alcohol retailer, Alko.

This is a similar arrangement to neighbouring Sweden and Norway, but that could change under the new law as stronger alcopops make it to the shelves of supermarkets, and small artisanal producers are allowed to sell stronger beverages direct to customers from their breweries or production facilities.

Heavy drinkers

Systembolaget compares the Nordic countries in its comment, which was submitted under EU rules designed to allow countries to comment on legislation in other states if they see a conflict with EU or national law, or the rules around the single EU market.

"Total consumption of alcohol in the Nordic countries is 10.4 litres of pure alcohol per adult, which is less than the EU average of 12.5 litres," write Kenneth Bengtsson, the chair of the company's board, and Magdalena Gerger, the CEO.

"In the Nordic countries, Sweden's and Norway's total consumption is significantly smaller than in Finland," the letter states.

The Swedish letter did not mention, however, that Finnish consumption is still below the EU average by 0.2 of a litre of pure alcohol annually.

EU complaints

Under EU law, the letter must be answered as quickly as possible by the Finnish ministry responsible for the law, in this case the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health. The legislation is currently in a consultation phase, but the EU has asked for several details to be clarified.

According to reports in the National Coalition Party publication Verkkouutiset, the proposal could allow the Finnish monopoly Alko to sell online with products collected at premises owned by other businesses, but would retain a ban on online sales to Finland from firms in other EU countries. 

Verkkouutiset reports that the EU commission is opposed to that measure, as it would contravene regulations around the EU single market. The ministry has not confirmed the Verkkouutiset report, but the EU told Yle that it has made a 'private statement' on the law. That statement remains private, according to Commission spokeswoman Lucia Caudet, at the request of member states to allow an 'open dialogue'.

Trouble in parliament?

The law has also been controversial within the government. The National Coalition and Finns Party both favour liberalisation of alcohol laws, but the rural-dominated Centre Party is much more cautious.

Earlier this month 28 Finnish MPs signed a statement asking that the law tighten restrictions by moving so-called 'class three' alcohol, that is drinks between 2.8% and 4.7% alcohol by volume, to Alko and removing them from supermarkets.

That missive was signed by MPs from every parliamentary party except the Finns Party, including three MPs from the NCP and 15 from the Centre Party of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.