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  • The Freedom to Drink and the Freedom to Sell Drink:A Hundred Years of Danish Alcohol-Control Policy
  • Kim Moeller (bio)

Alcohol-control policies in the Nordic countries have historically been closely tied to the development of the welfare states. The balancing act between the freedom of citizens to drink alcohol and the freedom to make a living selling alcohol has to be considered against the public health and the public good. All of the involved interests have sound arguments; everybody wants freedom, health, and public order. From the start of the twentieth century, Danish policymakers have strived to achieve "increased sobriety and quiet in the streets"1 through legal regulation of alcohol sales, but "modernization"2 has both fueled and complicated these efforts. From the bar owner's perspective, strict regulations have been viewed as "provisional measures"3 based on paternalism and "obsolete dogmas"4 that unjustly discriminate a trade that generates large tax revenues. In contrast, insufficient regulation has demonstrated repeatedly to have "detrimental and demoralising"5 consequences in the form of "fornication, inebriety, and indecency."6 This article presents a study on morals, politics, and culture by examining how this dilemma has permeated Danish alcohol-control policy through its establishment, consolidation, and eventual dismantling. How did Danish policymakers originally establish successful alcohol-control systems and why is it so difficult to justify them now? Tracing the priorities in balancing the public health and the public good informs us on the relation between state authority and the citizen's rights and obligations, and thereby the foundation of the welfare state.

The Nordic countries have traditionally been spirits-drinking countries with a widespread acceptance of drinking to intoxication. In a historical [End Page 499] perspective, the initial objectives of Danish policymakers were to interchange spirits with beer and move drinking from public spaces and into bars. Authorities could then regulate the bars and hope for a self-fueling civilizing process. The policy objectives of changing the spirits-drinking tradition and decreasing total consumption were common for the Nordic countries; however, the way this was done in Denmark was unique. While the other Nordic countries implemented state monopolies on alcohol sale, Denmark primarily relied on a heavy excise tax on spirits. A monopoly on alcohol sales was perceived as infringing too much on both the citizens' freedom to drink and their freedom to sell drink. Interestingly, the Danish model did succeed in changing drinking culture away from spirits, and it did so much earlier than the other Nordic countries. Unfortunately, total consumption was hard to keep down. By the late 1970s, Danish alcohol-consumption rates had soared to twelve liters of pure alcohol per capita (14+), which is in the high end of the European spectrum, and Danish youth (15 to 16 years of age) are currently the heaviest drinkers in all of Europe.7 How did we get here?

We can analyze this question by studying the legal documents of the time. The primary data are the law texts, which are viewed as "petrified politics"8 —a snapshot of society and the dominant interests at a particular time. To understand further how various interest groups may have been successful in their lobbying efforts or how a spirit of the time may have affected regulation, my analysis includes a wider variety of legal documents and parliamentary white papers and proceedings, as well as scholarly analysis of alcohol-policy history in other, primarily Nordic countries. Choosing representative conflicts from a time span of a hundred years holds a problem of selection. The criterion applied is that the conflicts and their official resolution in laws are suited to contribute toward explaining the current predicament of high consumption and the absence of controls.

These conflicts pertain not only to alcohol-control policy. Alcohol controls in the Nordic countries are implemented as part of a general civilizing process in extension of the establishment of parliamentary political institutions at the turn of the century. The developments in the relation between state controls and the citizens' rights to drink and to sell drink are interpreted as an integral part of the overall development of the Danish welfare state.9 In order to better present this general...


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pp. 499-517
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