Published June 11, 2004


If you are a visitor reading this piece there’s not much that you would consider out of the ordinary about my actions. But if you are from Iceland, the image would prompt the question “So, you want to get drunk, do you?”

You see, Iceland has not embraced the concept of ‘social’ drinking. Whilst the rest of Europe, with the exception of my own country, England (and I’ll come back to them), have grown and developed with alcohol as a mild and pleasant social stimulant, the majority of Icelanders treat alcohol as a Saturn rocket does liquid nitrogen.

A glass of wine with your meal, a beer after work with your friends, a dram of whisky as a night cap are part of daily life for tens of millions of Europeans. Europe’s drink laws treat us as responsible individuals. Children are introduced to the pleasures of moderate alcohol consumption, whilst at the same time learning about the obvious dangers of abuse. In these countries people learn from an early age that to get drunk and appear to be drunk is to appear to be a fool, an embarrassment to not only yourself, but also the people you are with.

A sober country from Sunday to Friday
Iceland remains a temperance based society where strict drink laws and a high liquor tax prevail – there is no tradition of ‘social’ drinking here. The distribution and sale of alcohol is run by the state monopoly; they alone can sell the stuff and they do so through a restricted number of outlets at restricted hours. They also tax the hell out of the product. Just over 15 years ago beer was still banned from the country on the basis that it would have a corrupting effect on Icelandic youth. An Icelander cannot buy alcohol until he is twenty years old and even then he will pay four times more than his European counterparts for his bottle of beer, his glass of wine or whatever it is he wants to drink when he is finally allowed to shop at the wine monopoly. In addition, most households do not store liquor and the majority do not drink alcohol from Sunday lunchtime to Friday evening. Instead, Icelanders drink water, coffee, milk or cola with their lunch and supper.

On the face of it, all should be well. But research has shown that while temperance-based cultures drink less alcohol per capita than more relaxed countries, when they do take to the booze, they drink not for the gentle stimulant a glass or two can provide; they drink instead to get drunk. And here in Iceland, they drink to get Viking drunk. Let me add, that in a Grapevine devoted to sexual equality, Icelandic women kneel shoulder to shoulder in the gutters with men when it comes to getting out of it on a Saturday night.

Do Icelanders drink less than others?
The other remarkable thing about temperance-based societies is that on average they have six to seven times as many Alcoholics Anonymous groups per capita as non’temperance countries. On this matter Iceland has managed to achieve a remarkable first – whilst it has one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in Europe, it has the highest ratio of AA groups per head of population. Something is not working.

What has become clear is cultures that accept responsible social drinking as a normal part of life have less alcohol abuse than the cultures that fear and condemn alcohol. The drinking culture in Iceland really does need to change. Yes, the laws should change in line with other European cultures, but that should also happen as a determined effort is made to reposition alcohol in the Icelandic psyche.

Drinking to oblivion is not bad morally. But it can and does lead to fistfights, drunk driving and unwanted pregnancies as well as being a bore for others who have to endure it. There are a growing number of serious musicians in Iceland who will only play at early gigs as they want their music heard and their lyrics listened to but the environment that exists in many clubs as midnight approaches prevents this.

How to avoid bad sex
Coming from England, a country not renowned for the sexual prowess of its males, it may sound a bit rich commenting on Icelandic sexual behaviour but I feel on solid ground in referring to Europe’s more famed lovers, the French and Italians, who treat alcohol as a sexual stimulant – not an anaesthetic. Perhaps it is time that Icelanders did the same. Getting blasted leads so often to bad sex, unwanted bad sex, unwanted babies, unwanted partners, unwanted partners’ diseases. It really isn’t that appealing.

Icelandic males will tell anyone who will listen that this country has some of the most beautiful women in the world. If that is the case, why do they have to get half comatose to get into bed with them? And as for the women, perhaps getting drunk is the only way to make an Icelandic male seem beddable. It just doesn’t add up.

Icelanders have never travelled more, and hopefully this exposure to countries with an enlightened approach to drink will help. The defining moment will be when moderate use of alcohol is encouraged and presented as equally acceptable to abstinence. At the same time, excessive drinking will be seen as socially unacceptable and certainly never accepted as an excuse for bad behaviour. It´s the way the rest of the world is going and there is nothing to be gained in Iceland not going with them.

I long to see families sharing a bottle of wine over their lunch in the cafés of Reykjavík. It may be a long time in coming, but come it will.

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