The proposal to allow online and producer sales of alcohol on Iceland risks clashing with EU-law and the Icelandic Minister of Justice should consider other options. Recent court rulings in Sweden and Finland show that stopping foreign-based online alcohol retailers is possible and can ensure a level playing field whilst protecting the ATVR alcohol retail monopoly and public health in Iceland.

This opinion article is written jointly by Kalle Dramstad, Head of European Policy at IOGT-NTO and Emil Juslin, European Liaison Officer, IOGT-NTO and is republished here, after first appearing in the Icelandic daily newspaper Morgunblaðið, translated into English with the help of Aðalsteinn Gunnarsson, IOGT in Iceland.

Restricting Foreign-Based Online Alcohol Retailers Is Better than Allowing Profit Motives into Alcohol Sales

Through mutual exchange, Nordic countries have built one of the most successful alcohol policy models in the world. Unfortunately, not only good ideas travel across borders and it is with great worry we note that the debate from other Nordic countries about so called producer sales of alcohol now has reached Iceland whilst the proposal to privatise online alcohol sales is still clinging to the agenda.

Reading the recent proposal for changes to the Icelandic alcohol law, we note that public health impacts assessments are incomplete and important alternative policy options are missing. Allowing private profit incentives into alcohol retail sales comes at a well-documented cost to the well-being of individuals, families and local communities. We hope the Icelandic Justice Minister will reconsider and reorient the proposal.

First, one of the main arguments raised for allowing online and producer sales of alcohol is that foreign producers can sell their products through foreign private online retailers, putting local Icelandic businesses at a disadvantage. However, there are more proportionate solutions to this problem: Stopping foreign-based private alcohol sales to Iceland would still achieve the Icelandic Justice Minister’s goal of levelling the playing field but without negative health effects.

Experiences from Sweden and Finland show that it is possible to restrict foreign-based online alcohol retailers:

  1. In 2018, Finland had their ban on online sales of alcohol, including from other EU-countries, upheld by the Finnish High Court, after a supportive judgement in the European Court of Justice.
  2. Similarly, a Swedish court recently banned a foreign based private online alcohol company from targeting Swedish consumers.

The principle is clear: the retail monopoly can and should apply online just as it does offline.

Second, we note that references are made to the growth of alcohol tourism. However, the proposal of a broad strokes privatisation of online retail alcohol sales is not a precondition for a successful tourism sector – quite the opposite. Even for alcohol tourists, a trip to the local monopoly store after a tasting visit is part of the unique cultural experience of visiting a Nordic country. On a more fundamental level lies a question of priority: should the comfort and ease of international tourists be put ahead of the health and well-being of local populations and communities?

The Nordic restriction of private profit motives in alcohol sales has been one of the most successful ideas in global alcohol policy.”

Kalle Dramstadt and Emil Juslin

Third, the Finnish producer sales law is mentioned as a model to follow. It is worth noting that it has not been tried by the European Court of Justice and that the sale of most strong beers in Finland has already been privatised, unlike in Iceland and Sweden. In addition, online sales of alcohol are not possible in Finland, even for the privatised side of the beer market. Consequently, implementing such policies on Iceland is a gamble with the legal standing of the monopoly and the health of many Icelanders, not least vulnerable youth.

To summarise, the Nordic restriction of private profit motives in alcohol sales has been one of the most successful ideas in global alcohol policy. It is envied by many governments as an efficient and consumer friendly way to reduce alcohol related harm and the cost of alcohol to individuals, businesses and society as a whole. This model should be cherished and protected. For Iceland, this begins with replacing the proposals to allow online and producer sales of alcohol with a law banning foreign-based online alcohol retailers.