There's trouble in paradise! Scandinavian researchers are beginning to question — just as their national leadership is — whether paternalistic controls on their citizens' drinking comprises a workable alcohol policy for the twenty-first century. At the same time, the control policies of such Northern European countries have never gotten greater respect than today as templates for international policy! Where this will all end in a unified Europe is anybody's guess. Stanton here reviews a seminal work in this debate for the journal, Nordic Alcohol and Drug Studies.

Further Reading


Nordisk alkohol- & narkotikatidskrift, 18(1), 2001, 106-110

Whose Spirits Have Been Broken Anyway?

Review of Broken Spirits: Power and Ideas in Nordic Alcohol Control

Stanton Peele
Morristown, NJ


Alcohol control policy, theory, and research are notable for their regionalization: to wit, (1) alcohol policy has been most formalized politically, including state alcohol monopolies, in the Nordic countries; (2) this state action has been accompanied by social research and academic theory centered in (and largely restricted to) Nordic — along with English-speaking — nations; (3) great differences in historic and cultural perspectives towards beverage alcohol are apparent around the world and throughout Europe, and the nations with the strongest anti-alcohol, "temperance" histories and attitudes are the strongest purveyors of alcohol control policies.

To these three keynotes of modern alcohol policy development, we can add an historical shift that takes on a seminal role of its own — this is economic globalization, embodied in European integration. A change in economic realities towards internationalization and consumer-driven marketplaces has changed the conditions underlying Nordic alcohol policy, including forcing a confrontation of different national and cultural drinking and alcohol policy traditions. Looked at from this perspective, we are observing, simultaneously, a distinct liberalization of Nordic alcohol policy, and a growing sensitization of the rest of Europe to drinking problems and the need for enhanced alcohol controls. To place Scandinavian and national policies and temperance academic theories in a cultural and historic context is to question their scientific purity and inevitability. Thus, the alcohol policy control model tends to subordinate the idea of cultural differences, both in drinking styles and control mechanisms. Formal alcohol control policy is predicated on the ideas that (a) alcohol always requires elaborate formal controls, (b) primary aspects of these controls can be generalized, (c) sterner controls (up to a very high level of constriction) are good, loosening of controls is bad. These ideas are embodied in the single-distribution — or total consumption — model of alcohol abuse, which holds that national drinking problems rise sharply with rising aggregate national consumption.

The proponents of this model — more accurately an alcohol worldview — are thus placed in a strangely divided position. That is, contemporary developments in the Nordic countries contravene the recommendations of the major alcohol policy academics whose views had been most realized in these countries. At the same time, pan-European and international venues give these advocates more scope to identify alcohol problems and to propose heretofore unconsidered, or unpopular, policies for nations whose attitudes towards alcohol have been relatively laissez-faire. In short, there are good and bad signs for those who wish to spread alcohol control ideas largely pioneered in Scandinavia.

Landmark research and theory compendiums in alcohol control policy, steeped in temperance-nation ideology, have appeared in each decade since the 1970s, including the 1975 publication of Alcohol Control Policies in Public Health Perspective by Kettil Bruun and his colleagues, the 1981 publication by the National Academy of Sciences of Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition, and, most recent in this chain, Alcohol Policy and the Public Good by Edwards and colleagues, published by WHO in 1994. The long lists of authors attached to each volume are nearly all from Nordic or English-speaking countries. If there is a prototype of research represented in these volumes, it is to relate empirically changes in policy to consumption and problem outcomes — an epidemiology-driven basis for policy.

Broken Spirits: Power and Ideas in Nordic Alcohol Control takes a different tack in the study of alcohol control policies. Its academic roots are in cultural analysis, social history, public management, and media analysis. From this position, it considers that, "[t]he fragmentation of the alcohol policy sector is an irreversible historical fact in the Nordic countries and, as such, marks the end of one of the most pretentious(!) endeavors of social control in capitalist societies." This fragmentation, accompanied by the partial but continuing dismantling of the traditional state alcohol monopolies in the three principal Nordic nations, is related to a series of national, pan-European, and even larger economic forces.

Broken Spirits is the product of the Study of Nordic Alcohol Policy Systems, initiated in 1996 by the Nordic Council for Alcohol and Drug Research. The project was coordinated by Pekka Sulkunen and Christopher Tigerstedt, who together with Caroline Sutton and Trygve Ugland comprised the project steering committee. Consisting of separately-authored chapters involving 13 individuals, the book presents itself as a coordinated effort to understand this social change in process.

Broken Spirits describes the post-World War I creation of state alcohol monopolies in the Nordic countries, including Iceland, as "a spectacular historical experiment in social control." In the monopoly nations, state alcohol control took its place in an array of policies aimed at economic redistribution and the creation of a healthy, "good" life. In other words, alcohol policy was part of a larger Nordic national esprit and panoply of laws and institutions representing the modern social welfare state. In particular, state alcohol monopolies required a strong form of legitimized state power.

Even within this perspective, alcohol occupied a special position, however. There can be no question that there is a Nordic sensibility towards alcohol, reflected in both traditional attitudes and styles of consuming the beverage. Broken Spirits explicates and refines Levine's identification of English-speaking and Nordic nations (nine in total) as Temperance cultures, characterized as those which "drank alcohol primarily in the form of strong spirits and . . . [which] were largely Protestant. . . . [s]ince it is only relevant to be a teetotaler within a context where alcohol is experienced as problematic." [I]t may be that "Finland, Norway and Sweden are influenced by a very high and concentrated (in time) consumption practice that often leads to intoxication, public disorder, and crime."

In this context, public concern about and awareness of the dangers of alcohol were deeply rooted. Images of problem drinking have frequently surfaced in the Nordic media and public consciousness in support of restrictive policies, even after periods of liberalization. Policies that in many areas outside of Scandinavia would seem preposterously (not to say pretentiously) paternalistic have been implemented for substantial periods — such as the closing of retail alcohol outlets on Saturdays (in Finland and Sweden) — on the basis of the real images of increased numbers of weekend drunks staggering through the streets of Nordic countries. In the 21st Century, these policies are being re-evaluated, just as the permission for consumers to select alcohol packages on their own is growing where previously self-service alcohol shopping was forbidden.

Temperance movements in Scandinavia were real, substantial, and powerful well beyond the points where they became anachronisms in other countries. While prohibition sentiment faded through the 1930s, national temperance groups remained powerful in Nordic parliaments into the 1960s. The movements experienced steady declines thereafter, until, by the turn of this century they were no longer organized parliamentary forces. Nonetheless, temperance thought remains a touchstone for one pole of Nordic thinking about alcohol. Of course, temperance itself was ambivalent towards some alcohol controls, like the monopolies themselves, since they meant alcohol was to be a permanent, legitimate feature of Nordic life.

Broken Spirits notes and explores differences among the Nordic national temperance movements, while analyzing underlying similarities that allow them to be regarded as a unit. This commonality, ironically, has been finally broken by the response of each movement to European unity. In 1989, all three national movements agreed that cooperation with Europe should be predicated on the " 'four pillars' of alcohol policy": monopolies, high prices, customs restrictions, and public information. However, in the 1990s, the Finish movement, well-integrated with government action, did not develop a distinct policy. At the opposite pole, the Norwegian temperance movement adopted a modern bureaucratic face in Brussels and became an effective agent in pushing pan-European alcohol control policies built around alcohol and sports, drinking-driving limits, and drinking by the young.

Spirits places the United States in the same tradition as the Nordic countries, even in relation to other English countries, in that, while the Nordic countries maintained active temperance organizations, the U.S. has a "broader religious puritanical and progressive movement" that constitutes "a political pressure group." Outside of Scandinavia, among Western nations, only the U.S. enacted national prohibition, while a number of American states have adopted retail alcohol monopolies. To this day, the U.S. utilizes control practices that often strike those in other countries, even Nordic and other temperance countries, as bizarre. One such practice is the restrictive issuance of alcohol licenses to restaurants, so that diners often bring their own alcohol along when dining out.

At the other end of the spectrum within Scandinavia is the Danish exception. Denmark relied on taxation and pricing to accomplish many of the same aims pursued by the Nordic state monopolies. Of course, taxation is a control policy, albeit less drastic than a state monopoly. "[T]he tax increase radically influenced and transformed the Danish drinking culture" away from spirits, without the level of smuggling and bootlegging that resulted from state controls imposed in other Nordic countries. This transition involved the energetic and active private Danish brewing industry.

The contrast between Denmark and northern Nordic societies suggests the possibility that controls can themselves undermine positive drinking patterns and attitudes. For example, the influence of temperance traditions in northern Nordic countries in the early part of the twentieth century made drinking a disapproved activity and reduced the number of drinking outlets. But this may have removed informal social controls, made adoption of a beer culture impossible, and continued and exacerbated binge drinking tendencies in these societies. When the monopoly states formally attempted to encourage beer cultures, the immediate results were not as intended and the experiments were halted.

If there is a twentieth century social history of temperance thought, there is a parallel history of liberalism. Pekka Sulkunen makes clear distinct strands in liberal thought — political liberalism favors representative government but also social welfare policies, economic liberalism favors free markets, and a romantic liberalism endorses what might now be called self-liberation. It was in the 1980s that liberalism diverged from both control policies and temperance thinking (even in the 1960s and 1970s, student radicals supported renewed alcohol controls).

This new wave combined the economic liberalism of consumer markets with personal self-expression. The taste and pleasure of beer and wine as subjective experiences entered the public discourse. This liberalism was associated with a consumer-oriented middle class that claimed competence in making free choices. In the 1990s, this consumer and market liberalism coincided with the approach of a unified Europe. It was more apparent in Sweden and Finland, while lagging in Norway, although by the late 1990s even in Norway legislation favored greater alcohol availability. In this latest wave of liberalism, "[t]he boundary between the public and the private has been redrawn. . . . [the] John Stuart Mill principle of civil liberty. . . has taken the upper hand in relation to the national public good."

The liberalization of Nordic alcohol policy represents a shift from the total consumption to the secondary prevention, or harm reduction, approach, which targets at-risk and susceptible populations for control efforts. This, of course, opposes the single-distribution model currently endorsed as a central tenet by most alcohol policy specialists. Nonetheless, indicating that they do not reject this tradition or see that harm reduction contradicts the traditional concerns of Nordic alcohol policy, Broken Spirits intones that "[i]t is futile and misleading to present the total consumption approach and more specific harm-oriented policies as alternatives: in the current Nordic circumstances no harm-reducing measures are likely to lead to increasing consumption." At the same time, according to Spirits, "[t]he total consumption doctrine has lost ground as an integrating principle of alcohol policy."

"Broken Spirits" would likely be the title, in the U.S., of a work on the damage caused by alcohol (The Broken Cord was an American best seller about fetal alcohol syndrome). In fact, I'm not completely clear what the title is meant to indicate — is it the unified Nordic spirit towards antialcohol controls which has been ruptured in a post-modern era? Spirits is a book that fears not to focus on intricate details of differences and shifts in Nordic national alcohol regulations, including the layers of government regulations (chapters are devoted to decentralization of control and types of public administration entities and their use in alcohol control), the intricacies of the individual Nordic countries' relationships to the European Community and possible scenarios for the future, and other arcania.

But its greatest contribution is in signaling, simultaneously, a shift in the practice and spirit of alcohol control policy, along with a potentially new mode of discourse about the meaning and impact of alcohol policy.