Editorial: Finland’s Alcohol Addiction

Duty Free alcohol for sale on a Helsinki to Tallinn ferry / Credit: News Now Finland

Parliament is debating the latest proposals to reform Finland’s alcohol laws. But as Janne Strang argues in this editorial, the country is long overdue for a wholesale reform and rethink of the issues around alcohol – and in the end, the only control that works is self-control.

Very few nations have a more complex and dysfunctional relationship with alcohol than Finland.

Ever since the formation of a Finnish national state identity, mid 19th century, our attitudes toward hard spirits and intoxication have taken a prominent, if not overblown role, in defining who we are – and indeed should be – as a nation, as well as the the virtues of citizenship.

During the early years of independence, Finnish alcohol consumption, thanks to municipal legislation and a hell-bent temperance movement, had decreased to under a litre of 100% proof per person per year – a mere tenth of today’s volumes per capita.

Drunkenness in the young republic posed no threat whatsoever to society, the economy or to public health, but the sobriety ideology enjoyed strong public support. So much so, that for a public official, it would have been instant political suicide to advocate any slackening of regulations regarding the evil drink.

Prohibition Years

Temperance had become an out of control monster, and the only natural conclusion was prohibition, which was introduced almost immediately by the first sovereign parliament.

As many social historians are keen to point out, prohibition was a spectacular failure. Not only did it ween the Finns off fine wines and beers and exchange them for low grade moonshine of questionable quality and ridiculous alcohol percentages, but it also introduced the culture of hypocrisy regarding booze, that is still ever-present in the debate.

As with so many other national debates, on the surface is seems the alcohol discussion is all about MP’s measuring rational means to balance individual and business freedoms, against health and taxation issues. But at its core, it’s always about something else entirely – national identity, society’s responsibilities and the virtues of citizenship.

The ongoing parliamentary debate has once again been another mortifying display of hypocrisy and infantile behaviour, circling around fractions of alcohol volume percentages and retail hours, while MP’s with concerned faces passionately describe the potential horrors of alcopops, hard lemonades and the deadly allure of brightly colored drink labels.

It would be beneficial for Finland to start considering stepping out of its self-induced immaturity towards alcohol.

‘Suspend Your Better Judgment’

Finnish alcohol policy is a fool’s equation, where the government aims to control local health care costs via taxes and supply – but they’re doing it in a global economic reality that does not allow control.

What is not a part of the equation, is of course human nature. As long as alcohol consumption is restricted in so many rigorous ways, the implicite message is to drink whenever you can.

And where drinking is allowed, it is also allowed to suspend you better judgement.

When stores close their beer troves at nine o’clock at night, you’re more likely to buy a few, just in case you’ll want one later. And you will want it, when it’s sitting in your fridge.

When you’re fenced in at a festival, forbidden to take your glass outside a certain area, you’ll just resign and stay in the area, and why not have another while you’re there?

When the bar stops serving at precisely half past one, you’ll binge your pint waiting for the deadline, just to get another before the lights hit.

When you can’t buy your favorite IPA while shopping for groceries, you’re forced to find a special Alko-store, where you might as well pick up some other items while you’re there.

Not to mention the unfair competition advantage that stores with an adjacent Alko enjoy already today.

Now, people hang out at clubs until they all close at once, causing taxi shortage and skirmishes in the lines. If bars did not have to close until the patrons choose to leave, there’d be no reason to stay ’til the end. Imagine going home whenever you want?

Jokes aside, it’s a proven trend that kids today are less interested than previous generations in “getting hammered”. Many adolescents find being drunk frankly debasing, and regard alcohol as a rather vulgar drug.

Liberating Alcohol

While Finland is deliberating over petty details, the answer is right in front of us. While liberating the alcohol trade would surely in the short run result in significant setbacks in public health and increased violent crimes – there’s even the concept of a whole ‘lost generation’ being floated – it is however the only sustainable solution.

And a fitting end to 100 years of failing prohibition.

Like teenagers turning 18 are suddenly allowed to drink from one day to the next, without every single birthday ending face down in the gutter, so too should Finland be well capable of handling the fact – from one day to the next – that they’d be allowed to buy and consume alcohol in the fashion of a mature nation.

Maybe, just maybe, some freedom and responsibility would even open the gates for our better judgements to step in. The only control that works, in the end, is self-control.

Follow Janne on Twitter at @jannestrang