Norway Is Ultra-Restrictive on Buying Booze, and People Like It

The country is home to some of the happiest people in the world, so clearly it's doing something right.

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May 2 2017, 4:00pm

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Where can you buy a bottle of wine in Norway on a Friday night? Trick question: You can't, because the Wine Monopoly closes at 6 pm. You can pick up a six-pack of beer at the supermarket, but only until 8. On Saturdays, the cutoff for buying booze is even earlier—3 pm—and then you're out of luck until Monday morning.

Scandinavia is usually presented as a very progressive place, so this strict attitude towards alcohol sales might seem surprisingly restrictive—at least, from an American or continental European perspective. Unless you go to a bar, buying alcohol over 4.75 percent ABV isn't even possible in Norway beyond opening hours, when it's sold at a single outlet: Vinmonopolet. This is the state-owned Wine Monopoly chain, where you have to be 18 to shop, or 20 to buy hard liquor over 22 percent. Unless you live in a major city, Polet (as the Norwegians call it) is a one-per-town affair, or if you're in countryside, you could find yourself driving for nearly an hour to reach one.

If this sounds restrictive, you might be surprised to hear that this system is actually very popular: 80 percent of Norwegians want to keep their Wine Monopoly, according a Sentio Research survey from November last year. Soon after, Norway came out on top of the World Happiness Report, so they're clearly doing some things right. This UN report looks at a range of factors, including health and freedom—the balance between these two values are key to understanding why Norwegians are so fond of their Wine Monopoly. Because in Norway, it's generally accepted that the greater good of public health protection makes sacrificing free access to this legal vice not just acceptable, but even beneficial.

"People would be buying more alcohol if you could just pick it up next to the milk at the supermarket. I suppose that's the attitude, rightly so, that you're not supposed to buy it daily. You tend to make a special trip to Polet ahead of the weekend or a special occasion," says Astrid, an economist who lives in a town with a single Wine Monopoly. (All quotes in this article have been translated from the Norwegian.)

There is scientific support for this view: Research suggests restriction lowers consumption, and consequently, studies show a correlation with less alcoholism, health problems, and other drunk-related damage like fights or accidents. "The Monopoly system is really nice, because as a young person, I feel there's enough pressure already to drink," says Thea, a student who grew up in a village almost an hour's drive from an outlet. "Since it's more of an effort to buy liquor, it's also not normal to drink every night."

A second, major reason why Norwegians like their Wine Monopoly is that it's actually a very nice place to shop. "I like Polet. The staff know a lot about the products they're selling, and because they only have wine, spirits, and beer there, there's an exclusivity to the shop," Astrid says. A stroll around the Wine Monopoly in downtown Trondheim supports this: It's a bright and welcoming specialist shop staffed by connoisseurs with exhaustive knowledge of wine pairings, whisky distilleries, and microbrew hop varieties. The average city outlet has about 2,000 different kinds of booze in stock, or you can place an order for one of the 15,000 additional varieties in the catalog. It's hard to argue that perusing the spacious aisles at the Wine Monopoly is a lot nicer than grabbing a bottle of red along with your milk and cheese, but it does make you feel like you're buying something fancy.

It wasn't always like this: The Wine Monopoly used to be a drab experience. "In 1996, the popularity of the Wine Monopoly was at rock bottom. It was considered old-fashioned, a remnant of a bygone era," says Jens Nordahl, Vinmonopolet's head of press. Back then, the outlets were fewer and farther between, they closed earlier, and when you got there you had to wait in line for ages to be served at a counter.

With approval ratings hovering near the 30 percent mark, something had to change. "It's important that people are satisfied, as we depend on public approval," Nordahl says. This was the start of the transition to today's modern Wine Monopoly: more outlets, which are open longer, where people can browse.

The choice to keep alcohol sales on a tight leash remains a political call. The Norwegian Wine Monopoly was originally introduced in 1922 was to combat alcoholism, a significant problem at the time. Helping people get up from under the booze became a key issue for the country's left-wing governments, who considered it key to social mobility. Alcohol monopolies are more common in cold countries—Sweden, Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and parts of Canada have them too—because growing potatoes and grain meant making hard liquor. This is what has created a completely different drinking culture in the north compared to warmer countries, where they grew grapes and made wine—a far milder and more social tipple.

A lot has changed over the past 100 years, but this pattern is still at the root of the Scandinavian drinking culture: People are less likely to drink daily, but once they do, they're more likely to drink to excess. "But North and South Europe are becoming more similar, both in terms of alcohol policy and alcohol consumption," Nordahl says. "In Norway we're certainly adapting more continental-style wine drinking habit—maybe a couple of glasses for dinner, even on a Monday."

The support for the updated Wine Monopoly suggests there's still a certain appetite for restriction, but attitudes toward alcohol have changed in Norway over the past few decades. "Back in the day, to walk around with a shopping bag from Polet was a little shameful. But nowadays it's highly acceptable to shop there, at least for wine," says Harald, a social anthropologist who works in Trondheim. Harald is the only person I spoke to who'd admit to wishing he could pick up wine at the supermarket, but even he was quick to point out that if they sold wine at every corner, the choice would probably be limited.

Several people I spoke to said it would be convenient if alcohol was available a little later in the evening—Astrid finds it annoying having to rush through her supermarket shop to check out before beer sales cut off at 8 pm. But everyone agreed they liked the fact that the proceeds from liquor sales become public funds. "We're accustomed to the idea that things that may be considered dangerous or impure [like alcohol] should be handled differently to regular things," Harald says. Norway also bans alcohol advertising, and the driving alcohol limit is one of the strictest in the world at 0.2 percent. "I think it's ingrained—we live in a welfare society, and we trust the state to take care of the things that may be bad for us."

A downside to restriction is that people may take matters into their own hands and circumvent the system. Where Astrid grew up in rural Norway, people drank one thing at village parties: moonshine mixed with coffee. When asked if this is a function of restricted access, Ingeborg Rossow, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, says no, citing a study which found that people's willingness to buy moonshine was not determined by how far they lived from a legal outlet. This suggests people's affinity for home brew may be cultural, although Rossow adds that the prevalence of moonshine is dwindling. Thea's experience backs this up: She says people usually drink beer and alcopops at village parties now.

When asked why she thinks the Wine Monopoly has such strong support, Rossow points to evidence suggesting it's in part because people strongly believe it's for the best: "It appears that widespread knowledge about the consequences of alcohol damage contributes to increased approval." It seems that appealing to people's sense of social responsibility goes a long way, at least when it's backed up by a Wine Monopoly network that's actually a nice place to shop.

In fairness, the question of where you'd buy a bottle of wine on a Friday night in Norway isn't something that actually bothers most Norwegians. Through a filter of Scandinavian pragmatism, the Wine Monopoly makes sense: Having less booze around means you get fewer drunks, and those who drink responsibly can get hold of what they want with a bit of foresight—most people know exactly when the Wine Monopoly closes on a Saturday. From a foreign perspective, telling grownups they cannot buy wine on Sunday may smack of a nanny state, but this is simply not something most Norwegians are all that bothered about. "The chance of running out of wine when you have a few friends over is low," Astrid says. "You tend to have a few bottles in reserve."

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