Late at night on May 10, 1988, and a dozen joyful Icelanders flash victory signs outside the Alþingi as the upper house votes to bring an end to a year long debate. Not everyone in Iceland is as gleeful. The left-leaning politician Svavar Gestsson greeting the decision by exclaiming, ”This is unfortunate and a dreadful experience for me, both as a parent and a parliamentarian.” His reason for this gloomy response? The Alþingi had just voted in favour of overturning the prohibition on the import, sale and production of beer with an alcohol content greater than 2.25%.
In 1908 Iceland, or at least the men who were entitled to participate, had voted in favour of prohibition in the country’s first national referendum. Women were reportedly also predominately in favour of the 60.1 percent majority of male voters who voted ‘no’ to booze. With no domestic commercial brewing industry this was an effective death knell for beer that was confirmed by the Alþingi in 1909 when they passed legislation banning the import of all alcoholic beverages into the country.
Whether prohibition was advisable or not, there was still the practical matter of what to do with existing stocks of alcohol, so, rather than ban consumption outright. Iceland was given a seven year period of grace before a ban on sales came into effect in 1915. Complete prohibition was to last just seven years and in the meantime Icelanders who liked a tipple continued to indulge by illegally brewing their own home-made beverages.
In 1922 pressure from Spain, who insisted that Iceland accept imports of wine in return for the continued importation of Icelandic fish, led to the first of several changes to the prohibition law that gradually saw the reintroduction of alcohol back into Iceland. In 1928 the Alþingi proposed a second national referendum to determine the future of prohibition, ad this was carried out in 1933. Contrary to the hopes of those politicians who supported legal restrictions on alcohol the vote revealed that a majority now supported the repeal of prohibition.
Despite public opinion the Alþingi was strongly influenced by the anti-alcohol lobby who opposed proposals made in 1932 and 1933 to allow the brewing of beer up to 4 percent in strength. Proponents of the amendments argued that legalizing beer brewing would work against illegal brewing of liquor which was considered to be more harmful than beer, while a local beer industry would ameliorate against the loss of foreign exchange through the import of Spanish wine.
Such arguments were to no avail however, with the chief physician of Iceland arguing that freely available beer would be harmful to the working class and to the young, further stating that both these groups would have a tendency to abuse beer as it was relatively cheap. The Prime Minister, Tryggvi Þórhallsson, supported such arguments, expressing his view that allowing the import of hard liquor would be less damaging to the working class, the young, and students.
Such arguments as these would continue to be used over the next decades as the pro and anti prohibition lobbies argued their case. In essence they reflect the nature of symbolic legislation as an expression of dominance by one group over another, rather than instrumental legislation which seeks to control human behaviour. In Iceland, as in other countries that introduced prohibition, it was a small but powerful political and social elite that was able to impose its views through state legislature on a larger but less powerful majority that was regarded as socially inferior and to some extent incapable of successfully directing their lives without the well-intentioned guidance of their betters.
The prohibitionists were ultimately to find themselves swimming against the tide of public opinion however. In 1934 the Alþingi introduced legislation to allow the importation of all alcoholic beverages while maintaining the ban on local production. Proponents of change also argued for an exception to the blanket ban by allowing the commercial brewing of beer in Iceland. This they argued would increase state revenues through duties on beer sales and create an industry that would provide employment for Icelanders.
In response the prohibition lobby quickly seized upon the inconsistency in the proposed bill by pointing out that an exemption for beer contradicted the demand for prohibition of production of alcohol in Iceland. Parliament members again raised the alleged risks of beer consumption as a prelude to drinking strong liquor, arguing that beer should continue to be prohibited to protect the population against the risks of alcoholism. The final version of the bill ironically allowed the importation of all alcoholic beverages, including spirits, but banned the import of beers stronger than 2.25 percent in strength.
Further efforts to change the law relating to the production, import and sale of beer were seen in 1947, 1952, and 1960. These were largely centred around proposals to allow brewing of beer of up to 3.5 per cent alcohol. All were however defeated, regardless of fiscal arguments relating to the local economy or appeals to an Icelandic sense of justice. Once again beer as a stepping stone to alcoholism and the danger to the working classes were used by prohibitionists to counter the proposals, and in 1952 the minister of justice removed a proposal for another national referendum from suggested legislation in perhaps the clearest sign yet of government recalcitrance in the face of public opinion.
Further referendum proposals were also denied in 1965, 1968, and 1977, while in 1983 a bill for a referendum was accepted for debate but never came to a vote. Meanwhile the Alþingi had, in 1952, passed legislation that permitted brewing for export and to meet the demand of the NATO personnel stationed at the air force base in Keflavik. Icelandic sailors and air crew were allowed to bring beer into the country for their private use: up to 24 bottles of beer if they had been away for less than 20 days; 48 if they had been away for longer.
By 1984 a newspaper survey found that 74 percent of Icelanders supported the idea of a national referendum on the beer issue. Opponents dismissed the findings as propaganda from the beer supporting press which had influenced the majority of the public, a further indication of the unwillingness of the government and the prohibitionists to engage in direct democracy. Yet a small victory for the pro-beer lobby occurred in 1984 when the privileges for sailors and air crew were extended to all Icelandic travellers.
Small amounts of legally acquired imported beer supplemented a thriving illegal home brewing industry with beer making equipment legally sold throughout Iceland. The police largely turned a blind eye to illegal brewing, generally only involving themselves when arresting drink-drivers. And while beer above 2.25 percent in alcohol was banned, beer up to that strength was available in bars. Icelandic beer drinkers also regularly upped the alcoholic content of their small beer by adding shots of spirits such as whiskey, or the Icelandic spirit brennivín, creating a drink known somewhat confusingly as ‘pilsner’.
Up to 1984 this was considered to be acceptable, as both the small beer and the spirits were legally sold in watering holes. In 1985 the teetotal Minister of Justice banned bars from adding spirits to beer, a year that also saw another defeat for bills proposing an Icelandic brewing industry, imports, and a referendum on prohibition. It was the last real success for the prohibitionists. A year long debate took place in 1987-88 that culminated in the late night session of the Alþingi on May 10, 1988, an event that was televised live and attracted huge audiences. Just after midnight the conclusive vote was cast and Icelanders learned that by a 23 to 17 vote, with two members absent, beer was once more legal within the island nation.
But it wasn’t to be available immediately. While the bill legalized production and confirmed that beer could be sold like other beverages it didn’t cover a number of issues that still needed to be resolved: the tax rate; whether it should be sold in cans or bottles; alcoholic strength; what brands could be imported or made available for sale? These and other decisions had to be made before March 1, 1989, when beer would finally go on sale.
Prohibition is a blunt weapon, and the Icelandic experience of banning beer while allowing spirits and wine seems particularly misguided. If nothing else it was inconsistent, whichever side of the debate you happened to be on. Modern approaches focus more on pricing and availability rather than outright bans, for example by making alcohol a relatively expensive commodity and restricting its sale at certain times of the day. In Iceland the debate largely centred around the prohibitionist view that restricting total consumption would be to the public good, in opposition to the anti-prohibition view that the legislation was unequal and the argument that legalization would lead to a substitution of lower alcohol content beer for spirits and wine.
After legalization the fears of the prohibitionists appeared to be justified as alcohol consumption rose from 4.5 litres to 7.5 litres of pure alcohol per person, per annum, with beer accounting for 52 per cent of alcohol sales by 2007. These rises appear to be particularly closely linked to increases in disposable income from the mid 1990’s, with declines in consumption and sales evident during periods of recession in the early 1990’s and in 2008. And while evidence suggests that there may be some increases in specific alcohol related illness, the broad picture is one in which the legalization of beer has had little overall impact.
In part this may be a result of Iceland’s alcohol control policies which see academics, government and NGOs play a role in drink awareness programs, school-based education, primary health care and community based interventions, a national monopoly on retail and production, regulations on marketing and advertising, and aggressive pricing policies. All of which contribute to Iceland having the lowest rate of alcohol consumption among the Nordic countries, and one of the lowest among European countries.
Interestingly, given its relatively short history of modern day beer drinking in a nation that has been described as a spirits drinking society par excellence, beer now accounts for 61.8 percent of alcohol consumed by Icelanders, with spirits accounting for just 16.5 percent. In other words, 26 years after the prohibition ended the average Icelander now drinks more beer than his counterparts in the great beer drinking nations of Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Britain.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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