There is a fairly strong public support for the government alcohol stores in Norway and Sweden. (I don’t know enough about public opinion in Iceland or Finland to discuss their situation). There are, however, some issues to consider when you move a particular group of legal foodstuffs out of general distribution.
I have given some quite positive coverage of the Swedish Systembolaget shops in the past. Their bigger shops have a fine range of beers, while the smaller ones are more hit-and-miss. But these shops exist within a political and legal framework, and there is a broad consensus to keep them. And the border trade keeps the prices at decent levels, at least compared to Norway.
But there is one aspect that provokes me. That is when Systembolaget moves into the political domain to argue for the status quo. A recent case is an interview with the chairman of the board of Systembolaget on the web site of the Swedish temperance movement, where he tries to ridicule those in favour of direct sale of beer and wine from small scale producers.
But we are talking about much more than a newspaper article here. It’s a governmental monopoly that spends a lot of taxpayer’s money to convince public opinion that things should stay as they are.
I quote the Swedish columnist Mattias Kroon in Sydsvenskan (the translation is probably not 100%, but you get the point):
Systembolaget foresaw many years ago that one might question the role of the monopoly for competiton reasons. They therefore had to run a publicity campaign to give the impression that they had public opinion on their side. In 2002, Systembolaget gave the contract to the company Forsman & Bodenfors.
The aim of this was to avoid that you and me and the rest of the people don’t get the idea that we could buy wine in cozy little wine stores, in cheese shops – or why not as take-away in restaurants. Like in all other civilized countries. The monopoly and the PR company wanted us to feel that such a behavior is a bit dangerous, threatening and unsafe. With a huge budget they managed to form public opinion, give a slanted message, convince – in short: to manipulate us to approve of Systembolaget as such and to make us believe that everyone else feels the same. Well written stories, selected statistics, good commercials. Just what any other gigantic company dose to promote its message and its brand name. Fair enough.
The difference is that the Systembolaget message about the splendor of the monopoly is allowed to stand there, unchallenged. There is no equal competitor or organization to match their promotional budget. Legal? It seems so. Democratic? Doubtful. When a state monopoly runs heavy marketing we usually call it propaganda. And you pay for it. With your money and your freedom of choice.
(There is more in the original article, go ahead and read it, use Google translate if needed).
Vinmonopolet in Norway does not play an active role in the political arena in the same way. They do not have large posters in their stores boasting of the many lives that have been saved because of the monopoly. I hope it stays so.
If the health authorities and the government wants to argue for the present system, they are free to do so. But let’s not muddle the discussion by having the monopoly companies as political actors in their own right. It’s not only a matter of principle. As we see in Sweden, this arrogance may also cause a backfire.