This is a summary of some of the findings and concepts presented in the report ‘Den förtryckande alkoholnormen’ (lit. The oppressing alcohol norm) produced by the think-tank Nocturum. The report in its full version, including all the statistics referenced here, can be read in Swedish at nocturum.se.

On the freedom to not use alcohol

The culture surrounding alcohol varies across the globe. In some parts of the world, you’d be hard pressed to find anything resembling an alcohol norm. In others, such as my own country of Sweden, alcohol is present in most social activities. It is often ingrained in the very core of the social culture, ever present in the fora of parties, celebration, relaxation, networking and sexual flirtations, it’s presence presupposed and unquestioned. But is it appreciated?

That is why we at Nocturum, a Swedish think-tank geared towards topics of alcohol and sobriety, decided to ask the Swedish populace questions about their preferences regarding alcohol. Some of the results from that study have been published in our latest report Den förtryckande alkoholnormen.

Current alcohol norm doesn’t reflect people’s real preferences

What we found is that people’s preferences and the culture surrounding alcohol does not add up. Very few seem to give alcohol the amount of social significance that manifests in the culture. When asked whether alcohol is important for a successful social event, the vast majority says no.

The figure shows the public’s response to the statements “Alcohol is an important component for a nice event” on a scale from 1-7. The shades of grey show those who replied 1, 2, or 3 (nuances of ‘do not agree at all’). The shades of orange show responses on the scale 5, 6, or 7 (‘agree completely’). The part in between shows those who responded with 4 (‘either or’). N = 1005.

There also seems to exist, from across the demography, a real demand for more social spaces that are free from alcohol.

The figure shows the public’s response to the statement “I wish for more alcohol-free environments and events” on a scale from 1-7. The shades of grey show those who replied 1, 2, or 3 (nuances of ‘do not agree at all’). The shades of orange show responses on the scale of 5, 6, or 7 (‘agree completely’). The part in between shows those who responded with 4 (‘either or’). N = 950.

But, perhaps most surprisingly, there seems to exist a worrisomely large group in the Swedish populace that consume alcohol – even though they do not want to.

When excluding all non-consumers of alcohol, around 15 % of the adult (18+) population still said that they want to live a life free from alcohol, but do not. When only looking at young people (18-29), the figure grows to over 20 %. That amounts to about a million of Sweden’s rather small population of ten million people who consume alcohol even though they do not want to. That is a significant number.

A few are most likely people that suffer from alcohol use disorders. But the vast majority are not. So how can we understand this?

Fear of social exclusion fuels current alcohol norm

In the introductory paragraph of my blog here, I wrote that in certain countries, alcohol is ingrained in the core of the social culture. For most people it is hard to separate the beer from the after work gathering, the wine from the dinner party, the liquor from the Friday night out. The norms dictate that those social arenas are conditioned by the presence of alcohol. By denying oneself alcohol, you also risk denying yourself access to those social arenas.

That is no small thing.

A rewarding social life is a necessity. There is no well-being without a good social life. In reality, this means that people tend to consume more alcohol the more they fear that saying no will come at a cost to their social life, even though they themselves would prefer not to consume alcohol. In some ways, we can understand it as a social addiction of sorts.

Still, like I explained earlier, most people do not even value the social effect of alcohol. Yet many continue to contribute to the alcohol norm by reproducing expectations and behaviour instead of challenging and substituting them. Because that is how it is and that is how everyone else appears to want it to be. Thus, there seems to exist a rather intoxicating vicious cycle of norms and notions about alcohol that fuels ideas and expectations resting on the false concept of what we perceive as other people’s preferences.

We also found that those who do value the social significance of alcohol are more likely to be male, urban high-earners. Thus, in general, those who do honestly enjoy the alcohol culture are men of power, those who dictate norms and customs. They are the few who carry and cement the alcohol culture against the preferences of the many.

This may sound a bit far-fetched for some people – the idea of the existence of a massive group of people whose preferences are suppressed by a small, influential minority. This concept can be seen as unreal because it does not fit within the current discourse on alcohol, which is based on the perception of the contemporary alcohol culture. Like the demands of movements such as those for suffrage, LGBTQIA-rights or decolonisation were first met with dismissal and disbelief because they did not fit within the predominant ideas of the time, this perspective can also be met with dismissal by those who are invested in the discourse. But it is a fact that the current hegemony on alcohol does not adequately mirror the actual attitudes and perspectives of the people.

Of course, the current discourse is fuelled not only by a small minority of alcohol-positive people, but also by the alcohol industry whose profits are dependent on the assumptions, expectations and behaviour of consumers. By promoting the notion of alcohol as a key element to a good social life, they benefit from people’s fears of social exclusion and social life breaking down. The industry is holding us hostage – the demand being the consumption of their product.

Alcohol policy is (or should be) about freedom of the many

So what could this analysis teach us? What is the way forward towards creating a social culture, which is less dependent on alcohol and shows more respect to the preferences of the people?

There are many tools, which could be considered. Today, I want to focus on politics and policy. The discourse surrounding alcohol policy is often conveyed in a particular way. Often alcohol-aware actors such as IOGT International promote the public value of alcohol policy – whether it be public health or to protect certain vulnerable groups such as children who grow up in families with parental alcohol problems, women who endure gender-based violence, and so on. On the other side we see alcohol-positive actors such as the industry or neoliberal institutions. They often use the rhetorics of promoting individual freedom and the right of choice, protecting these from what they say is ‘a policy of paternalism’.

Overcoming a false dichotomy

The discussion thus often creates a dichotomy between the interest of the people vs. the interest of the individual. That is a false dichotomy. Our report shows that the behaviour manifested by the alcohol culture is not representative of the will of the individual. By opening the flood gates to more alcohol and less regulation, you are not promoting choice. You cannot promote the freedom of the individual by expanding a set of norms in a culture which oppresses many people.

Of course, this is not a topic that is void of nuances. There are people who enjoy the current alcohol culture. There are people who still want to consume alcohol in some cases and in some arenas. The issue is not to make it impossible for these people to realise their choice and their preference. The issue is to make it possible for everyone to realise their choice and their preference. The goal of the alcohol policy of the future should hence not be seen as a way to hinder the freedom to consume alcohol, but to make possible the freedom to not consume alcohol.

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