Stanton attended a conference of the alcohol epidemiology and policy group, the Kettil Bruun Society, held in Oslo, Norway, June 5-9, 2000. He was struck there by the amount of public drunkenness he encountered (although other Kettil Bruun members said that no such thing was true).

Further Reading


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, 5 July, 2000

Reflections on Nordic Drinking: Oslo and Public Drunkenness

Stanton Peele


When I was young, in the 1960s, I traveled Europe and left with the distinct impression of Oslo as the public drunkenness capital of Europe. During my recent trip to KBS, I continued to research the topic, through observation, key informants, historical investigations, and Kettil Bruun researchers themselves.


When my wife and I arrived at our hotel by cab, we were greeted as we decabbed by an intoxicated man begging for money (it was 10:00 AM on a weekday, and he appeared to be a chronic alcoholic). Particularly later in the evenings on weekends (although we were never out past midnight), we felt every public encounter was fraught with the danger of being accosted by inebriates. In the waiting area of the beautiful Oslo railroad station at 11:00 PM Friday, a chronic inebriate put his hand on my wife as he begged. Waiting at a trolley station in front of Oslo's principal church at 11:00 PM Sunday night, two young drunk men separately accosted us. We instead walked home and were accosted by a group of young drunken men. My wife asked what she was doing to attract the attention of so many drunks. We did note that many young women walked alone and in small groups late at night in Oslo without apparent anxiety.

I haven't seen a public monument to a derelict in any other country (this one resides in Bergen).
I haven't seen a public monument to a derelict in any other country (this one resides in Bergen).

Although KBS members and others often debate the impact of chronic alcoholism versus episodic drunkenness, Oslo is in my experience a leader in public examples of both. Yet, I never heard this aspect of Oslo discussed at the meetings, or informally outside them, by KBSers. Is this because this is so obvious as not to attract attention, or do people not share my experiences?

Of course, I did observe many (hundreds) of Norwegians drinking beer moderately in restaurants and bars, so I wouldn't call drunkenness typical or modal drinking behavior (although one of my key informants [see below] did, and I interpreted Mäkelä's quote below to imply this about Finns). Rather, I would say that in Oslo moderate social drinking is the rule, but one from which there were more exceptions than in any other place I have been. I have not been accosted by a drunk in New York (where I go often) for many years. This may be because, in New York and other places, drunkenness and alcoholism are ghettoized. Indeed, what was so remarkable to me in Oslo was how prevalent and socially tolerated this behavior was. I saw people drinking on public transportation and on the street at night without apparent fear of social disapproval or police interference. On Monday morning at 8:00 AM, I saw a young man passed out in the main public park downtown and several other people recovering from drunks.

Do these experiences color the agendas and attitudes towards alcohol of those from Nordic countries known for their activist approaches towards alcohol problems?

[I rush to note that, in every other way, Norway, Oslo, its people, and of course those involved in the conference provided one of the most positive conference and tourist experiences I have ever had. The conference organizers were, in particular, exemplary in their hospitality and consideration]

Key Informants

Bar waitress (Oslo)

We ate at the busy outdoor restaurant attached to a bar across from the Cochs Pensjonat. Relatively early in the evening, I saw a chronic inebriate accost our waitress. I asked her about the man. She said, "He comes here nearly every night drunk. Sometimes he isn't and gets drunk in the bar, and then they kick him out [again, I was struck by the toleration of becoming drunk]. But he's harmless. However, this is a busy bar, and often people get drunk and become offensive towards me. These are sometimes ordinary people who get drunk and sometimes alcoholics. This is the Viking style of drinking — charming." [I noted that this woman made an historical connection to the Vikings and expressed disgust with the behavior — which she regularly encountered and seemed to feel she could not prevent.]

Public information specialist (Bergen)

In Bergen (where we did not encounter chronic alcoholics, but where across from our hotel a noisy bar was going all night), we stopped for information at a tourist center. After a well-informed woman answered a series of tourist questions, I asked her where to get a beer while waiting for a tour bus. As usual, she knew exactly. I then asked her, "Is drinking good for you?" Without hesitation, she said, "I understand drinking a glass of wine each day is healthy." My wife said, "What percentage of people do that here?" The woman answered, "People here drink every other weekend, when they drink a great deal. People drink small amounts of wine with meals in France." [So this woman felt Norwegians typically drank in bursts, which she felt was unhealthy and contrasted with French drinking.]

Historical Research

In researching the Vikings (to whom the waitress linked current Osloean drinking), I read:

They were bound together like brothers, and celebrated their ties in the great hall with fraternal drinking bouts. Women brought them [in] vessels made from polished cow horns. . . ale, mead, or rare wine imported from the south. These horns could not be set down, so they had to be drained dry or passed around, until everyone was intoxicated. Drunkenness was considered holy. It made the men feel brave and hearty. . . . [However] [T]hose who drank too much might boast outrageously. . . . It was all meant in sport, but . . . often led to blows.

Editors of Time-Life Books, What life was like when longships sailed: Vikings AD 800 - 1100. Alexandria, VA; Time-Life Books, pp. 36-37.

Kettil Bruun Papers

Of course, papers presented at Kettil Bruun (and in the past by prominent members of the society) have identified the unique drinking strategies of Norwegians (and other Scandinavians, particularly the Finns):

Klaus Mäkelä

I happen to represent a culture which is known for its rather violent drinking patterns; when Finns drink, they drink heavily. The important thing is that I believe that they are not only drinking away their cultural neurosis; they actually value the cathartic effect of Dionysian drinking. This leads to a situation where, as I have put it, you can't single out the alcoholics at our parties because everyone is as dead-drunk as alcoholics. This leads to a cultural tradition where drunkenness is positively valued among rather large segments of the population. Therefore, there exists no cultural consensus regarding the positive effects of moderation. I am, myself, part of this culture. I cannot advocate moderation as a clear-cut positive pattern of drinking, because I feel that something deeply connected with the positive effects of alcohol would be missing then.

I have the feeling that everybody around here [at a conference in the US] is agreeing upon one point: you should drink moderately if you drink. I cannot be in that consensus and, therefore, I have my own difficulties. I have cultural problems, for instance, concerning educational campaigns because I couldn't know what I should advocate in those campaigns. Therefore, I would rather use restrictions covering the whole population, and then give people free choice about how much to drink when they are drinking, but advise them not to fight and not to drive when drinking.

R. Room and S. Sheffield, eds., The prevention of alcohol problems: Report of a conference. Sacramento: California Office of Alcoholism, 1976, p. 138.


Oyvind Horverak and Elin Bye

This paper at Kettil Bruun indicated that my key informant — the information specialist in Bergen — was correct when she said that Norwegians bunch drinking on weekends compared with the French. The paper notes that abstainers have been declining, spirit consumption declining, and beer and wine (especially) consumption increasing in the last quarter century in Norway. Despite these changes, when compared with Italian drinkers, "Norwegian women and men drink in much the same way as they used to: at weekends (sic) and social gatherings, often without food, and generally a bit too much."

Oyvind Horverak & Elin Bye (2000), Some characteristics of the Norwegian drinking pattern in the period 1962-1999. Paper presented at the 26th Annual Alcohol Epidemiology Symposium, June 5-9, Oslo, Norway.