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NORWAY EXPLAINED

‘Vinmonopolet’: Why the Norwegian government controls the sale of most alcohol

In Norway, all retail sales of alcohol stronger than 4.75 percent are handled by the state-owned ‘Vinmonopolet’, or wine monopoly, but why? 

Pictured are rows of wine.
Here's why Norway has a Vinmonopolet. Pictured are rows of wines bottles. Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

Picking up a bottle of wine to go with dinner or an aperitif for the starter in Norway isn’t a straightforward process and requires more planning than you might think. 

You can’t just go to the nearest shop or supermarket and pick up a beverage of your choosing, because the sale of all alcohol 4.75 percent or stronger is prohibited and restricted to Vinmonopolet, or the wine monopoly. 

Why was Vinmonopolet set up? 

The establishment of a wine monopoly in Norway came in the 1920s, a time when Norway was trying to combat alcoholism. The country had already implemented a liquor ban. 

The institution was set up in 1922 as a government-controlled company following trade negotiations with wine exporters in France.

For the first few years of its existence, it imported the sale of weak wines and spirits for medical and scientific use until all bans on liquor and alcohol was lifted in 1927. 

By 1939 the state became the sole owner of Vinmonopolet after buying out all other shareholders. This was done mainly to combat corruption. 

Polet, as the wine monopoly is colloquially referred to, endured as Norway’s various left-leaning governments at the time saw combating alcoholism as a way of improving social mobility.  

Vinmonopolet changed significantly during the 1990s for two reasons. Firstly, Vinmonopolet ceased to be an over-the-counter service. Prior to this, over-the-counter service and short opening times, particularly on weekends, made the trip to Vinmonopolet an arduous experience due to long queues. 

Secondly, the European Economic Area agreement put an end to Vinmonopolet being the sole importer of alcohol into the country.

The service has also entered the digital age, with customers being able to order products to be picked up at stores or to be delivered through the post. 

Why does Vinmonopolet still exist today?          

Vinmonopolet might seem outdated and overly regulated. Still, opening times and queues before holidays aside, people in Norway don’t seem to mind the current system too much. 

In 2020, Vinmonopolet topped customer satisfaction survey the Norwegian Customer Barometer for 2020 and is consistently among the top ten companies for customer happiness. A wide selection of products and knowledgeable staff were cited as factors.

Meanwhile, the government persists with the wine monopoly for the same reason it sticks with its other tight alcohol rules: to encourage responsible drinking. 

There is a slew of laws aimed at ensuring responsible drinking. These include strict serving times. For example, shops can’t sell alcohol past 8pm on weekdays, 6pm on Saturdays and not at all on Sundays and some holidays. 

The opening hours for Vinmonopolet are stricter still, with most places closing at 6pm on weekdays and 3pm on Saturdays.

There are also high taxes on strong alcoholic drinks, laws making it illegal to promote or advertise alcohol, and ‘happy hour’-type offers are prohibited.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about buying alcohol in Norway

Vinmonopolet and high taxes will remain in place for the foreseeable future because they provide a valuable source of income for the government, which gathers the operating profit from the state-owned firm while also collecting tax revenues on the alcohol sales. In 2020, the turnover of Polet was 16.4 billion kroner. 

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CHRISTMAS

Why does Norway gift the UK a Christmas tree every year? 

Every year since 1947, the people of Norway have gifted the UK a Christmas tree displayed in Trafalgar Square during the festive period. 

Pictured is the 2019 Christmas tree.
Norway gifts the Christmas tree as a symbol of its appreciation for the UK's support during World War Two. Pictured is 2019's offering. Photo by Daniel Leal/ AFP.

One of the first things you’ll notice if you are near or around Trafalgar Square in London at Christmas is a 20-meter-high Christmas tree on display for everyone to enjoy. 

The tree is displayed every year and is a gift from Norway to the UK. The lights are normally switched on at the beginning of December to mark the countdown to Christmas. 

This year the tree will be lit up on Thursday, December 2nd at 7pm CET. 

The tree has been met with a slightly lukewarm reception on social media this year due to its sparse branches and less than healthy-looking appearance. 

One Twitter user joked, “Are we at war with Norway now?” while another questioned whether this year’s tree was a sign that “Norway has not taken the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjær well”. 

A social media account for the tree, run by Westminster City Council, explained in jest that the branches of the tree weren’t missing and “social distancing” instead.

The tradition of Norway gifting the UK a tree goes back over 74 years to a couple of years after the Second World War. 

The yearly event see’s the people of Norway gift the UK a roughly 20-metre tall Norwegian Spruce, often selected months or sometimes years in advance, as a sign of their gratitude for Britain’s support for Norway during World War Two. 

READ ALSO: What you should know if you’re invited to a Norwegian ‘julebord’

The tree, typically 50-60 years old when ready to be cut down, is felled during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, the Mayor of Oslo and Lord Mayor of Westminster during November. At the base of the tree, there is a plaque that reads, “This tree is given by the City of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.” 

It is then brought to the UK by sea, before making its way to London by lorry. The tree is then adorned with typical Norwegian decorative lights before being displayed to the public until the 12th day of Christmas. 

While the annual tradition dates back seven decades, the first Christmas tree was actually gifted to the UK in 1942. 

During a raid on Hisøy Island between Bergen and Haugesund, west Norway, resistance fighter Mons Urangsvåg cut down a Norwegian pine and shipped it back to England as a gift for the exiled King Haakon. 

King Haakon decided to pass the gift onto the UK, and so it was erected in Trafalgar Square, although with no lights due to the blackouts caused by the Blitz. 

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