Swedish PM stirs lethal cocktail with wedding plan

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Swedes have a love-hate relationship with alcohol. After intemperance ravaged the working classes in the 19th century, the authorities tried to stamp it out with prohibition, which lasted until 1922. To this day, booze is prohibitively taxed and can be bought only from a state-owned liquor monopoly called Systembolaget. Its austere shops are supposed to encourage "healthy" drinking habits.

Yesterday, Swedes learnt that the relationship between those who tax alcohol and those who sell it is to become even more intimate. Goran Persson, the Prime Minister, has applied for a licence to marry the head of Systembolaget. Mr. Persson, a 54-year-old divorcee, and Anitra Steen, also 54, made their love story public in February and moved in together in July.

Ms Steen became a household name earlier this year because of a bribery scandal in which 90 Systembolaget staff were accused of soliciting bribes from drinks companies in return for boosting their sales. The scandal also drew scrutiny on the affairs of an alcoholic beverage company that is owned by a state that officially disapproves of liquor, yet produces Absolut Vodka, one of the world's most heavily advertised liquor brands.

The police were called in and Mr Persson assured the nation that he had complete confidence in Systembolaget's management. But political commentators are still grumbling about the potential conflict of interest arising from the couple's relationship. How, they ask, can Mr Persson's ministers supervise the state business, which his boss's lover is running?

Once their wedding celebrations are over, Sweden's first couple might have to work out a bigger dilemma. Should the country cling to its moral-tinged state alcohol regime in the face of much cheaper drink from abroad and EU free-trade rules?

The EU-inspired increase in personal travel allowances means Swedes are now the most enthusiastic booze-cruisers in Europe. They flock to Denmark, which recently slashed taxes on spirits by 45 per cent, and the Baltic states to stock up. That means Mr Persson's government is being drained of tax revenue and Ms Steen's shops are losing business.

But if Mr Persson responds by slashing alcohol taxes, he will be accused of encouraging binge drinking.