What is the deal with Sweden? A country once lauded to the point of tedium by any politician of any persuasion on any issue now finds itself inundated with accusations of impending disaster, rank incompetence and wilful blindness. Since Donald Trump’s erratic highlighting of the issues faced by the country last month, hardly a week has gone by without the place crashing the news cycle.
Yet Sweden is a country that staunchly refuses to acknowledge it has problems. Trawling the national press, it is difficult to find any coverage of social issues approached with anything like balance.
In a recent documentary into violent disturbances in Rinkeby, Stockholm, filmmaker Ami Horowitz interviewed members of the public who suggested criticism of migrants for their actions was essentially racist. Swedish minister Ylva Johansson contradicted all statistics stating that rape is higher in Sweden than anywhere else in Europe. Meanwhile, ‘feminist government’ ministers donned hijabs to bow before the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, just days after staging a defiant response to The Donald.
However, rape, feminism and migration aren’t the only issues that reveal a bizarre attitude. Take the drinking culture, as documented in February in the Financial Times, to which the state is remarkably hostile. Sweden maintains a near-monopoly on the import, packaging and distribution of alcohol, with everything over 3.5% vol being sold by the ‘Systembolaget’ (government off-licence). Tax on alcohol, meanwhile, is punitive; a minimum of £2 per litre is levied on the weakest bottles of wine, whilst £18.33 is added to the bottle-price of vodka and other spirits approaching £40% vol.
One might imagine, for this sort of nannying to survive its voters’ disdain, that levels of binge drinking would be lower in Sweden than among their European neighbours – and this is exactly what the Swedish government claims. But research from the Institute of Economic Affairs shows this is not the case at all. As Jan de Grave remarked in the FT: ‘Sweden’s alcohol policy has produced… unintended consequences from economic and public health points of view.’
The most striking feature is that Sweden has the third highest rate of ‘unrecorded alcohol consumption’ in Europe, at over three litres per capita, which makes up by far the highest estimated percentage of total alcohol consumption for any nation on the continent. (At around 34%, it’s more than double that of the UK.)
Why? Because Sweden’s stranglehold on its alcohol has only encouraged a ‘booze cruise’ kind of mentality, with hundreds of thousands of Swedes taking advantage of their proximity to Denmark and Germany to cross the border and stockpile. Alcoholism is no lower than anywhere else; massaging the figures by ignoring ‘unrecorded drinking’ has done no one any favours.
Sweden also claims to have the lowest rates of smoking in Europe, with just 16.7% of the population admitting to smoking in 2016; unsurprising, one might think, given the country’s austere attitudes to smoking, even proposing banning smoking on outside terraces last year. What this fails to take into account, though, is that cigarettes aren’t the country’s most popular form of tobacco: that title goes to snus, a product placed under the lip and used by almost 25% of the population.
Suddenly, the statistics on tobacco usage don’t look quite so Spartan. And the case for Sweden’s probity seems less secure. You see, snus is illegal everywhere else in the European Union on the grounds that it might cause mouth cancer. The Swedes, rightly, have long thought otherwise: it’s much, much safer than smoking. So when the country joined the EU in 1995, it obtained an opt-out on the product – and neatly revealed how politics matter as much if not more than evidence in European health regulation.
The Institute of Economic Affairs places Sweden second in its Nanny State Index, behind Finland, but head and shoulders ahead of the rest of Europe. It has been touted as a liberal paradise for years now, friendly to all comers. But clearly, it is not friendly towards any sort of business that the state deems could corrode the morals or health of its citizens.
Sweden is as zealous in its attacks on alcohol and tobacco as it is in its desire to appear socially tolerant to people. The danger, though, is that it fails to recognise that neither approach is working.