The religion of liberal drinking

Excessive drinking costs Danish society around 13 billion kroner a year, so why is there little political will to follow Sweden’s example and make alcohol more expensive and harder to access? The answer, in part, is a matter of faith

In December, a week before Christmas, Cecilie and Emily hosted a traditional Danish ‘julefrokost’ in their spacious apartment in Copenhagen’s Nordvest district. A Julefrokost – literally Christmas lunch – is an all-day festivity where Danes stuff themselves with roast pork and pickled herring, and wash it down with litres of alcohol.

“Me and my friends met up at around noon, cooked some vegan flæskesteg, frikadeller and risalamande. As soon as the food was ready we started drinking some beer and, first of all, schnaps – a really strong one,” says Cecilie.

“It’s a tradition at the beginning of every Julefrokost, that you take a shot and make a speech,” adds  Emily.

Biggest drinkers in Scandinavia
Danes like to drink, even more than their Scandinavian neighbours. On average, each Dane consumes 10.4 litres of pure alcohol per year, the equivalent of 40 bottles of vodka. In comparison, Norwegians annually consume 6,7 litres of pure alcohol and the Swedes 7.2.

A 2013 study by the Danish health authority Sundhedsstyrelsen found that 8.5 percent of Danes aged 16 and over were high risk drinkers, while 20 percent exceeded the maximum recommended weekly consumption limits.

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“In Denmark alcohol causes 10 percent of the total burden of diseases and approximately 3,000 Danes die as a consequence of their alcohol consumption each year,” says Anne Friis Krarup from the Danish Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse). “The ‘overuse’ of alcohol in Denmark is estimated to cost society 13 billion kroner per year.”

Diet and smoking also contribute to Denmark having the lowest life expectancy in Western Europe. But despite frighteningly high rates of lifestyle illnesses, Denmark’s permissive approach to both tobacco and alcohol – both in terms of price and availability – shows no signs of change.

Krarup attributes Danish drinking habits primarily to culture, availability and strong influence from peers, and argues that the government has not done enough to prevent alcohol-related diseases and raise awareness of the risks of heavy drinking.

“Kræftens Bekæmpelse has recommended restricting the availability of alcohol – especially for children and adolescents under 18 years,” she says. “But, I think a ‘Swedish’ model will arouse uproar in the Danish population”

Nanny States
She might be right. Alcohol in Sweden is not only much more expensive in Denmark, beverages stronger than 3.5 percent can also only be bought for home consumption through the state-owned monopoly System Bolaget. Typically open during day time hours Monday to Saturday, and closed on Sunday, it’s a far cry from Denmark, where alcohol can be bought 24 hours a day, seven days a week – at least from a 7-11.

This approach has seen Sweden and Norway – which operates a similar alcohol policy – ranked as some of the world’s least free countries, in regards to alcohol, on the European Policy Information Centre’s “nanny state index”.

A “nanny state” is a disparaging term, which refers to a government that excessively interferes with its citizen’s personal choices, for example how much alcohol, tobacco, fat or soda they consume.

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British author and journalist Chris Snowdon helped develop the Nanny State Index. He is a vocal opponent of this type of government intervention, and has published three books discussing the effectiveness of government interference on personal lifestyle choices.

“There are public order issues related to drunken behaviour and drink-driving which justify taxation at some level, licensing laws and policing. However, regulation should not be designed to reduce alcohol consumption per se. How much an adult chooses to drink is his or her own business,” he says, adding that Scandinavian alcohol monopolies provide a good range of choice, considering the lack of competition.

“But this is because the government needs to maintain support for the system. Their closing hours and prices, on the other hand, demonstrate a lack of respect for the population. They are relics of the post-prohibition era and should be abandoned.”

A Cultural Factor?
Regardless of whether alcohol regulations are moral or not, it’s been conclusively shown that higher prices significantly reduce alcohol consumption, especially among the young.

“To be honest, I would not drink the same amount if alcohol was more expensive,” Cecilie admits.

“The main reason why we drink so much at Julefrokosts is because alcohol is available everywhere for very little money. Plus, drinking makes up a big part of our Danishness.”

That is certainly beyond doubt – beer is to Denmark, what pizza is to Italy, or tea to the UK.

Sidsel Eriksen is an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen who specialises in alcohol studies and has looked into the differences between the apparently-similar Scandinavian countries.

She argues that developments in the early 1900s saw a shift from a spirits-based drinking culture to a beer-based one.

“In Denmark, drinking beer is mostly symbolic. Beer means relaxing with friends and family, and having a cozy time – most Danes do not necessarily drink to get drunk,” she stresses.

But how, and when, did Denmark’s liberal drinking style culture diverge from the rest of Scandinavia? In her essay ‘Drunken Danes and Sober Swedes’, Eriksen analysed drinking culture through temperance movements in Sweden and Denmark.

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She underlines how the Anglo-American views of Christianity, which pressure the individual for constant self-improvement, had a very strong influence in Sweden, leading to a more controlled and restrictive society. Denmark, however, was far more influenced by a Lutheran tradition of rejecting restrictions on human actions.

“Social movements have been decisive for alcohol culture. Sweden was strongly influenced by Anglo-American views on Christianity, which stress the importance to prove that you’re a good and reliable person. Temperament has therefore been far more integrated in Swedish culture than in the Danish one. It has not been a Swedish state project to make people sober, but rather social movements, which played a substantial role in state construction through time,” Eriksen explains.

Denmark and Sweden’s divergent religious history means that while you’ll get fined for drinking a beer on the streets of Malmø, excessive drinking is almost glorified in Copenhagen. At least that’s how Cecilie sees it.

“I think it’s quite accepted to be drunk in Denmark, whereas one of my French friends told me in France it was uncool to be anything more than tipsy,” she says.

“But I’m quite certain if we’d discovered alcohol today, with current drug laws, the Danish government definitely wouldn’t legalise it.” M

Features, Culture

By Gabriele Dellisanti

Editorial intern. Media and communications student at Lund University.

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