In Finnish discourse, decontrolling access to alcohol has in some ways become a question of human rights.
“In the case of alcohol, the question of the freedom and responsibility of consumption electrifies the discussion in a completely different way from any other health policy issue. I can’t imagine that, in the discussion on, say, the sweets tax, there would be similar observations indicating that we are now intervening in a fundamental right,” says University Lecturer in Sociology Anu Katainen from the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki.
The cornerstone of the Finnish union between alcohol and a sense of freedom was laid down more than a century ago.
“Before the rise of the temperance movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Finns drank fairly little. The movement increased the moral burden of alcohol: there is something wrong with drinking. Drinking, and binge drinking in particular, have meant, especially to the working population, rebellion and resistance against their superiors.”
After the end of prohibition and especially after the Second World War, the moral burden began to ease. From the 1950s onwards, Finland evolved into a European welfare state and a consumer society that values individual freedom, offering a new perspective on alcohol consumption.
“In a way, drinking became a symbol of the new era, particularly among the educated urban population. Having said that, alcohol consumption was still controlled in Finland, while the idea of a civilized and free European citizen prevailed. Baby boomers found this contradictory, and the consumption of alcohol was specifically considered a right.”
Those drunkards and us normal people
Katainen points out that the current discussion on alcohol is partly based on a misconception of the societal harm caused by alcohol. According to a simplistic classification, also cultivated by the alcohol industry, people can be divided into two extremes: those who consume alcohol ‘normally’ and drunkards.
“An individualised notion of alcohol consumption is typical of this kind of thinking. People feel that it’s your personal problem if you’re unable to consume alcohol appropriately. They think that normal people such ourselves certainly don’t need regulation. It’s the others that do, so why not focus on targeting measures at them and taking care of their problems, while the rest of us can drink freely?”
In reality, there is no such clear-cut divide. People can be placed on a continuum with absolutists on the one end and individuals who have characteristics associated with alcoholism on the other. The majority of the population is situated somewhere between the two.
“The scale is extremely broad, and the problems caused by alcohol are often very commonplace. Problematic alcohol consumption does not always show. As a rule, people whose alcohol consumption is harmful have jobs. A large share of alcohol-related costs originate in situations where regular alcohol users come from parties, stumble and break their leg.”
On the cusp of significant change
On the positive side, alcohol consumption among both adolescents and adults in Finland has been decreasing for a long time. This is at least partly due to cultural change, including attitudes towards alcohol consumption at various work-related events and an increased ability to identify alcohol abuse.
If, for example, the sale of wine is allowed in grocery shops, Katainen predicts that alcohol consumption will start growing briskly. The effects particularly affect those in disadvantaged positions to begin with, for whom alcohol is already a problem.
“Even though the arrival of stronger beers in the grocery shop was a fairly minor change at the time, an increasing share of the people dying of liver diseases are middle-aged men who are heavy consumers of alcohol. And if wines come to the shops, spirits are likely to follow. The state monopoly Alko would probably not be able to maintain a comprehensive network of stores on the basis of spirits sales alone when people can pick up a bottle of wine at the corner shop.”
Dismantling the Alko monopoly would most likely also have an impact on the types of beverages people prefer.
“Closing down Alko could have unexpected effects on Finnish wine culture. Alko has the capacity to offer a vast range of products throughout the nation, from bulk wines to expensive quality products. Grocery shops don’t have similar capabilities.”
How much harm can be tolerated?
The alcohol policy discussion on deregulating alcohol sales is just as black and white as the attitudes. Public health specialists and researchers note that harm will increase considerably if the availability of alcohol is further increased and if those who consider themselves ‘regular users’ consequently increase their consumption.
Those on the other side of the debate wonder about the need for such guardianship in Finland, since there is no similar control in central and southern Europe. Katainen points out that it is not about the right of self-determination or guardianship.
“In any event, the costs generated by alcohol will be borne by us. At the end of the day, this is simply straightforward health policy: how much harm are we prepared to tolerate?”