Vice Squad
Saturday, June 09, 2007
Swedish Alcohol Imports

Sweden's restrictive alcohol policies and the European Union's import policies repeatedly have come into conflict. One source of tension has been Sweden's state-owned retail alcohol monopolist, Systembolaget. If a Swedish resident travels to another EU country and brings back alcohol intended for personal use (which includes serving it to friends and family at a party, for instance), then EU law requires that such an import be legal. But Sweden does not allow individuals to have alcohol for personal use sent to their home from foreign suppliers (perhaps contacted via the internet); rather, any such acquisitions must come through Systembolaget. You can carry the alcohol yourself when returning from abroad, but you can't have it delivered.

Or at least that was the rule. A group of Swedish wine enthusiasts had been ordering wine from abroad over the internet. After having some of their wine confiscated, one of the group's members brought a court case. The Swedish Supreme Court put the case on hold until the EU's Court of Justice could rule on the legality of the import rules. (Somehow I find it hard to imagine the US Supreme Court doing this sort of thing, but maybe I am unimaginative.) In November, a preliminary recommendation sided with Systembolaget; last week, however, the EU court ruled against the import monopoly, according to this article:

...Tuesday's ruling said Sweden's prohibition of imports "is less a method of limiting alcohol consumption generally than a means of favoring Systembolaget as a channel for the distribution of alcoholic beverages."

It said such bans "cannot be justified on grounds of protection of the life and health of humans."

So it is likely that Sweden will soon make provision for individuals to import booze directly. Such a liberalization does not mean that the high Swedish alcohol taxes can be (legally) avoided: mail order personal alcohol imports will be subject to Swedish excises, though those imports that are carried personally are exempt. Whether the new provision will allow easy means of (illegal) evasion of Swedish alcohol taxes remains to be seen.

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