Miners, moonshine and the monopoly

More than a century ago, in an attempt to make mining and society safer, Swedish mine owners started a distribution system of alcohol that is still in operation around the world today.

What do Canada, Finland, Qatar, Turkey, Sweden and Iceland all have in common? They are all countries with government monopolies on the sale of alcoholic beverages. While the practice has been going on for more than one hundred years, it all started with drunken miners in the town of Falun, Sweden.

Falun is known for its thick red sausage and its red paint (famously seen on farmhouses and cottages throughout the Swedish countryside today), which derive from the copper mines near the city. But to understand how today’s alcohol monopoly really got started we have to go back to the reign of King Adolf Fredrik of Sweden.

After some rather unsuccessful attempts to regulate alcohol use, the king decided in 1766 to abolish all restrictions on making liquor. The resulting free-for-all was not healthy for the country as the majority of households began brewing their own booze. These “Hembränningen” or private distilleries grew to an estimated 175,000, all of which consumed huge amounts of potatoes and grain that would have been used for food. By the 1800s, some people had had enough of the public intoxication, drinking on the job and general malaise caused by a country caught in the grips of alcoholism. Temperance movements were springing up everywhere.

Facts about alcohol in the workplace:

  • A hospital emergency department study showed that 35% of patients with an occupational injury were at-risk drinkers.
  • Breathalyzer tests detected alcohol in 16% of emergency room patients injured at work.
  • Analyses of workplace fatalities showed that at least 11% of the victims had been drinking.

Back in Falun at the copper mines, work interruptions due to alcohol-related accidents and fatalities had risen to disturbing heights, and compensation to workers’ families was causing operating costs to skyrocket. Mine owners were fed up, and in order to protect their bottom line they formulated a plan. These captains of industry petitioned to form a distribution company with exclusive rights to build distilleries and sell liquor, with all proceeds going to improving the social conditions of the miners (i.e., getting them to drink less). The result was the creation of a state organization whose job involved regulating all alcohol sales in the city and ensuring it was done responsibly.

In 1850 alcohol was being regulated by the state, and by 1860 the system proved successful and began spreading to other cities in Sweden, most notably Gothenburg, where it earned the name the “Gothenburg system.” Soon, age limitations were imposed and the “systembolaget”, the name it has today in Sweden, was officially born.