Academic journal article Contemporary Drug Problems

The Structural Configurations of Alcohol in Denmark: Policy, Culture, and Industry

Academic journal article Contemporary Drug Problems

The Structural Configurations of Alcohol in Denmark: Policy, Culture, and Industry

Article excerpt


Policy interventions on alcohol have been unusually frequent in Denmark in recent years. The first age restriction (15 years) on buying alcohol from retail outlets was imposed in 1998 (1997 LSF/1 LSF 186). This was raised to 16 years in 2004 (Lov nr. 213 af 31/03/2004) and again to 18 years for drinks stronger than 16.5% vol. in 2010 (LOV nr 707 af 25/06/2010, § 2, stk. 2). The national action plan for public health 20022010 (Regeringen [the Government], 2002) furthermore set the goals of achieving a major reduction in heavy drinking, a reduction in young drinking, and the elimination of child drinking. Finally, the government imposed heavy excise on alcopops.1

These initiatives are often interpreted as being indicators of strong public health concern and of the will to regulate consumption in Danish policy, which follows academic recommendations and confirms the underlying assertion of a causal relationship between regulation and consumption (e.g., Babor, Higgens-Biddle, Saunders, & Monteiro, 2010; Gordon & Anderson, 2011). Indeed, alcohol consumption and adolescent binge drinking has declined during this period (1998-2010), and the age of first intoxication has increased.2 However, this article suggests that a much more complex interplay between policy, culture, and industry are at work, and that studies restricted to the impact of policy (which are many in this field) will inevitably overlook a thorough understanding of these dynamics.

There is, in international research on alcohol consumption, a tradition of studying the effects of various policy changes as isolated "events" (Mäkelä, Bloomfield, Gustafsson, Huhtanen, & Room, 2008; Gustafsson 2010; Grittner, Gustafsson, & Bloomfield, 2009; Bloomfield, Rossow, & Norström, 2009; M0ller, 2002; J0rgensen, Riegel, Hesse, & Gr0nbaek, 2006). These studies have often given ambiguous results.

This article employs an alternative approach to the relationships between alcohol policy, culture, media coverage, and industry. Rather than isolating policy events to measure their statistical impact on consumption patterns, this article attempts to reveal the codevelopment of these domains in a more dynamic structure-oriented perspective. For this purpose, we conduct a historical and interpretative meta-analysis of existing studies on alcohol in Denmark across cultural, political, and market domains, including systematic analyses of legislation, media coverage, and other aspects (for a related study of Britain, see Measham, 2008). Far from abandoning the use of statistical data, we draw attention to what we see as the confusion of quantitative relationships with the effects of structural, historical, and qualitative elaboration upon these quantitative relationships.

Bruno Latour's (2005) actor-network theory (ANT) provides us with an interesting conceptual framework: We can consider the case of Denmark as being a "black box" that needs to be opened up. This is opened by following the central "actant," alcohol, to determine how it is mediated in policies, cultures, and markets, and how it changes form and substance as it forms a network of sociomaterial hybrids (see also Demant, 2009). Inspired by Latour's (1993) analysis of the 19th Century "pasteurization of France" in which he follows the "invisible" microbes as they traverse boundaries between farms, laboratories, newspapers, hygienist social movements, etc., we reveal how alcohol is enrolled in various networks (policy, culture, industry) and how these networks have developed under mutual stimulation in recent decades. The ANT perspective, contrary to the social ontology of events and effects that underlies much research in alcohol policy, is employed to reveal the sociomaterial changes in the Danish alcohol networks and as a way of understanding present consumption patterns in a larger societal framework.

The traditional ANT approach considers all large-scale social entities to always be black boxes of sociomaterial networks that simply need to be "re-opened" by the social scientist (cf. …

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