The crowds begin to gather at noon on Fridays. By 3 p.m. customers are spilling into the street.
By closing time at 6 p.m. the waiting lines run into the hundreds as people try to buy their weekend ration of wine, beer or hard liquor at the state-run store.
It isn’t a matter of shortage but of government attempts to make drinking difficult--and to make a lot of money in the process.
“Swedes have a hedonistic way of drinking,” said Hans Klette, a law professor at Lund University. “It’s part of the northern culture.”
Bjorn Hibell, director of the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs, said: “We drink in the Scandinavian way--not too often, but a lot. We drink more to get intoxicated than in other countries.”
Though Scandinavian governments try to control the consumption of alcohol, at the same time they profit from it through taxes that boost the price to the consumer to 10 times the cost.
In Sweden, Finland and Norway, alcohol is sold legally only in state stores at government-set prices. Only the Soviet Union has a similar system in Europe.
Prices are meant to be prohibitive.
Finland raised liquor prices twice last year to discourage heavy drinkers, pushing up the cost of a bottle of Scotch to $36.40. Sales dipped briefly but quickly returned to normal.
Sweden’s Parliament is considering legislation to reduce the level of alcohol tolerated for drivers to virtually nil. The legal limit in Scandinavia already is lower than in most of Europe, at 0.05% alcohol in the blood.
Courts in the three countries link fines for drunk driving to an offender’s income. A Norwegian lawyer set the record this year after failing a breath test in a spot road check: He was fined $16,000.
Compared to other countries, alcohol consumption per person is low. Finland rates 26th in the world, Sweden 31st and Norway 33rd.
But Scandinavians rarely have a casual glass of wine with dinner, a cold beer to just quench a hot thirst or a sole pre-dinner aperitif.
“A small percentage of the people, maybe 10%, drink about half the alcohol sold,” Hibell said.
Drinking is ingrained in national customs, from the protocol of a formal evening party to the celebrations of Crayfish Day, which falls on Aug. 10.
On that day, Swedes wear party hats, tie red napkins below their chins, sing boisterous drinking songs and plunder a bowl of the small lobster-like shellfish. Custom dictates that each claw is washed down with a glass of schnapps. About 20 crayfish make a meal.
The culture of alcohol may have its origins in the chilly climate and the long, dreary winters. The Vikings were said to have an affinity for mead and other strong drink. Some social observers say the normally shy Scandinavians need alcohol to open up.
As early as the 18th Century, Sweden’s King Gustav III saw liquor as a main source of income, and he urged drinking as an act of patriotism. In the 19th Century, Swedish companies often paid their workers in booze.
Excessive drinking led to a powerful temperance movement, now 150 years old. Sweden imposed rationing in 1917, limiting men to three liters of spirits a month, women less. Ration books lasted until 1955.
Prohibition was introduced in Norway and Finland, with as little success as it had in the United States.
Today, advertising alcoholic beverages is forbidden. Unlike other stores, liquor outlets are closed evenings and weekends.
“The idea is that alcohol shouldn’t be too available or too cheap,” Hibell said.
The cheapest Scotch is sold in Sweden at $24 for a fifth; it’s $32 in Norway. In Finland, a bottle of good 12-year-old Scotch is now up to $60.
Tight regulation on liquor supplies created an underground market for moonshine. In Norway, police arrested two men last March who claimed to be horse breeders but who were accused of building stills in their stalls producing 1,000 liters a day.
Figures published in Sweden say about 10% of the alcohol sold is moonshine.
Swedish statistics say 3,274 people died in 1986 from alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver and other diseases in which alcohol was a probable factor. That figure compares to 1,256 alcohol-related deaths in 1965.
About 9% of fatal traffic accidents are linked to drinking, according to figures compiled by Hibell’s organization.
There is some evidence of a long-term improvement. Surveys of drinking habits among conscripted soldiers show that those who reported getting drunk at least several times a month dropped from 68% in 1971 to 42% in 1987.
The willingness to drink at any price means enormous tax income for the governments.
In 1987, Finland earned 8.5% of its national budget from its alcohol tax, almost enough to pay its entire health-care bill, including medical research.
Sweden reckoned on $1.31 billion in alcohol revenue in its 1989 budget and plowed back $8.6 million to fight alcoholism.
Of the $24 a Swede pays for a bottle of whiskey, the state-owned importer takes $1.46 for buying, bottling, labeling and distributing the drink to the retailer. The state-owned retailer, Systembolaget, takes 93 cents. The rest, $21.61, is tax.
Drinking habits are changing, largely due to government efforts steering people away from the brutally strong locally distilled spirits and vodkas to wine and beer.
“We have become a wine-drinking country in the last 10 years,” said Goran Sandberg, a director of the Wine and Spirit Corp., Sweden’s state-owned importer. “We have grown up gastronomically.”
As the sole importer for an entire nation, the company wields power in the wine-making world far outstripping Sweden’s comparative size. The Swedes helped establish Australian vineyards, buying half the wine exports of that country.
The company boasts being the world’s largest customer of wine, importing 100 million liters a year from 27 countries. The wine is stored in caverns originally built as bomb shelters.