Health-conscious Swedes mount new battle against drink and drugs
Stockholm — A long column of Swedish youth marched through Stockholm's central square recently to protest the use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. The sight of such groups is common here as Sweden sees a resurgence of its once-powerful temperance movement.
Swedes drink less alcohol than most peoples of the developed world. Bars are relatively few, restaurants don't serve alcoholic beverages until afternoon, and the "three martini" lunch is unheard of in the business community. Still, the country is dissatisfied with the amount of abuse, particularly of alcohol, and the population is engaged in a debate over how to deal with it.
In fact, some Swedes say that the alcohol issue has replaced the once all-consuming discussion of nuclear power.
Politicians have been raising their voices, and parliament has issued an advisory to discourage serving liquor at official functions. The minister of foreign affairs has ordered all Swedish embassies to offer only wine and no liquor, unless a certain number of non-Swedes are present for an event.
The order, which came last spring, has produced some grumbling from those who call it merely symbolic. "It circumvents the real problem," says one Swede.
But Gunnar Aaberg, first secretary of the National Board of Health and Welfare, maintains, "Maybe it's psychologically right. When you talk about alcohol as the biggest social problem we have today and then the official goes to a party and drinks, it's hard to believe him. People in a position [of authority] need to set a good example."
While at least eight major temperance groups have been active in Sweden for years, Mr. Aaberg says that only recently have outsiders stopped making fun of their arguments. With a growing interest in ecology, jogging, and health issues , a new influx of youth has joined the movement. "Today the debate is more serious," he says.
Although Swedes rarely drink while they work, Mr. Aaberg says that "social use of alcohol is deep in our culture." But once a person crosses the line from social drinking to alcoholism, he often becomes an outcast. His condition is not tolerated, as it might be in France, says Mr. Aaberg. "You lose your friends, your family, and your work."
To combat the problem of alcoholism, the parliament has funded at least 100 projects ranging from programs within labor unions to efforts to turn teen-agers away from drinking.
A new youth program focuses on social life."We can see that the youth are so used to drinking when they go to dances that it's hard to break this habit," Mr. Aaberg says.
The Health and Welfare Board has issued a booklet telling how to give alcohol-free parties. It proposes that students have an open discussion before the event on topics ranging from lyrics that have a tie with drugs to "what should we do to do away with the old stereotypes in which boys play a tough role and girls just wait to be asked to dance."
The results of the school projects are not in yet, but Mr. Aaberg says that "a lot seem to like the dances without alcohol."
The government is also encouraging trade unions to discuss alcohol problems openly, as well as counseling pregnant women to avoid alcohol and funding community events for youth on the premise that "if you can give people a meaningful daily life, maybe they won't drink so much."
Sweden already taxes alcohol heavily and enforces a strick drunk-driving law that sends offenders to jail if they have an alcohol count of more than 1.5 parts per thousand in the blood. The government has launched a campaign to warn adults that it is illegal to buy alcoholic drinks for anyone under age 20 and is now discussing closing liquor stores on Saturdays.
According to 1977 figures, Sweden ranks 29th in the world in alcohol use. Per capita consumption for that year was 5.8 liters, compared with 16.4 for the No. 1 consuming country, France. Australia was No. 12 and the United States No. 21.
Mr. Aaberg says that the debate over alcohol could be a sign that Sweden is swinging back from the permissive mood of the past two decades. But also, he says, it could be that the "costs for society are harder to take."