In globalizing Sweden, state still big brother over drinking

Mon Feb 25, 2013 8:20am EST
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By Alistair Scrutton and Johan Sennero

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Few CEOS would welcome news of a fall in sales. But Magdalena Gerger, head of Sweden's retail alcohol monopoly that is one of the world's biggest single buyers of wine, is one of them.

Gerger's job as head of Systembolaget exemplifies Sweden's attitude that an interventionist state is good for you, and highlights Sweden's conservative attitude to alcohol use despite its stronger reputation abroad for liberal social policies.

"Nothing in my purpose or objectives drives that way (to increasing sales)," Gerger told Reuters at the headquarters in downtown Stockholm, squeezed between a bank and a church. "In fact it's the other way around - a healthier public."

Contrary to popular belief about Sweden, which lies in the so-called vodka belt, the Nordic country has one of the smallest per capita alcohol consumptions in Europe.

Over the last few years Sweden has privatized companies, trimmed its welfare state and cut taxes. But Systembolaget, along with the country's famed, lengthy parental leave, appears a sacred cow oblivious to reform.

If you want to buy wine, beer or spirits in Sweden outside a restaurant, you must contend with Systembolaget, stores that offer no promotions, are closed most of the weekend and have an uncanny ability to make you feel a guilty consumer.

Systembolaget made sales of $3.79 billion in 2011 and a 168 million operating profit though Gerger tends to be more occupied with ensuring age checks - 20 years old is the limit - are rigorously enforced.

Polls show a majority of Swedes support the system. But it is a model that is increasingly under scrutiny as Swedes buy more on the Internet from Europe.   Continued...

Empty bottles are moved onto a production line at the Absolut bottling facility in Ahus in this photo taken July 17, 2007. REUTERS/Bob Strong