Alcohol Culture in Denmark – A brand new anthology


Kristine Rømer Thomsen, Bagga Bjerge, Lotte Vallentin-Holbech and Kim Bloomfield
Published 5 Apr 2023

A new anthology from the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, BSS, Aarhus University called Alcohol – part of Danish culture for better or worse, addresses alcohol and how its use is closely intertwined with the Danish culture. No other psychoactive substance is such a timelessly hot topic in Denmark as is alcohol, setting it apart from all other Nordic (and Western) countries. For decades, Danes have enjoyed alcohol in festive contexts, but also when relaxing with friends and family and as part of Danish hygge (cosiness). Alcohol – and even a high consumption of alcohol – is normalised across generations and is associated with great enjoyment for many Danes.

The anthology is the eighth volume in the book series Samfund og Rusmidler. The series focuses on socially relevant problems related to both legal and illegal substances. As with previous volumes in the series, this book has been edited by researchers from the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University. The book series has its origin in cross-disciplinary social science research, and is directed toward a readership of practitioners, students, researchers and other interested parties.

Dilemmas and challenges as top Nordic consumer

Alcohol is not only associated with relaxation, fun and socialising, but also has social and health risks. For example, heavy alcohol use increases the risk of a range of diseases and can impact work, education or social relations negatively. This may lead to a number of dilemmas, such as young people in high school or other youth educational programmes feeling excluded from their peer communities if they do not drink. Similarly, nursing home staff can find themselves in difficult ethical situations if a resident drinks heavily and acts aggressively. In fact, Denmark tops the list for alcohol consumption among the Nordic countries, even though Denmark’s alcohol consumption has decreased in the past 10-15 years.

Danish alcohol culture is therefore an ongoing issue on the public health agenda. In March 2022, for example, the Danish Health Authority set out new national guidelines recommending that weekly consumption for adults of both sexes should not exceed more than 10 standard drinks (12 grams ethanol). Furthermore, it recommended that young people below 18 years should not drink at all and youths’ access to purchasing alcohol should be limited. Despite these ongoing attempts to decrease intake, in addition to the fact that Danes do know that alcohol consumption can lead to various social, legal, economic and health problems, many Danes still consume large quantities, often much more than recommended by the Danish Health Authority. Why is that we ask?

The aim of the book

From recent research findings the current anthology paints a more complete picture on how alcohol is used and perceived across generations and social strata in Denmark and discusses how this new research can inform and impact alcohol prevention, policy and treatment. In particular, the book examines how alcohol is deeply integrated in Danish culture, for better or for worse, and how normalisation of alcohol use is linked to enjoyment and social cohesion on one hand and social and health risks on the other.

The book covers three themes, all of which relate to the role of alcohol in Danish culture:

Historical-political background and context

The first part of the book focuses on historical and social-epidemiological perspectives and how these provide a better understanding of the position of alcohol in today’s Denmark. Sidsel Eriksen’s chapter investigates what underlies what she calls the “modern Danish alcohol story”. Analyses of historical material, including the rhetoric used in the Danish Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s, when alcohol consumption increased sharply, describe different political positions and interests, which were at stake at that time, and which have been formative for the approach to alcohol right up to today.

In Kim Bloomfield and Ola Ekholm’s chapter, data from surveys are used to examine Danes’ alcohol consumption from a socio-epidemiological (e.g. age, gender, socio-economic status) and internationally comparative perspective. The chapter relates how different age groups drink in differing ways, and that men drink more than women. Nonetheless, Danish women drink substantially more than women in other countries. Finally socio-economic status is less significant in relation to alcohol consumption compared to other countries, whereas residential location and social network membership have a greater impact on alcohol intake.

Vulnerable populations

The chapters in the second part of the book focus on what characterises alcohol consumption and culture among older citizens and citizens in risk environments. Through a qualitative approach the chapter by Søren Harnow Klausen, Regina Christiansen, Jakob Emiliussen, Anette Søgaard Nielsen and Søren Engelsen examines alcohol consumption amongst nursing home residents and investigates the influence of the local setting. Drawing on fieldwork and interviews, the chapter points to a very central dilemma: on one hand alcohol use poses a particular health risk for the elderly, and on the other hand, Danish elder care has a strong emphasis on and respect for patient independence and self-determination. The chapter shows that the nursing home staff, despite the dilemma they are facing, are able to adapt and implement effective alcohol management strategies, with which both the elderly and the employees are satisfied.

Based on fieldwork and interviews, Bagga Bjerge, Maj Nygaard-Christen and Siri Mørch Pedersen’s chapter investigates how marginalised Greenlanders residing in Denmark participate in drinking communities which not only function as places to get drunk, but also as places where many feel safe, included, at home, and where they can receive support (both tangible, social, and emotional), which they often do not experience in the surrounding society. However, the chapter also shows that spending time around alcohol can be exhausting for social relationships. The frequency and density of socialising is high, and heavy consumption of alcohol is often involved in the escalation of conflicts within the group.

Jonas Strandholdt Bach’s chapter also demonstrates how alcohol use functions as a social link for a group of marginalised citizens in a “drinking shed”. His analysis of fieldwork and interview data shows how citizens’ use of the shed has positive effects in relation to loneliness, care, and access to help. At the same time, the users are aware of the stigma attached to the shed, as well as the harmful effects of alcohol on the individual and in relation to potential conflicts in the shed. However, the users feel that daily visits to the shed are the best (and for many the only) alternative to sitting alone in their apartment, and that it provides access to social relations and assist.

Contemporary youth drinking culture

The third part of the book contains chapters which focus on alcohol use amongst youth. The chapter by Margit Anne Petersen, Sofie Hector Borup, Alexandra Bogren, Sidsel Schrøder and Geoffrey Hunt examines the link between alcohol intoxication and sexual consent in the nightlife. Based on qualitative data, the chapter focuses on how young women’s alcohol use contributes to creating opportunities where traditional norms for gender and sexuality can be challenged, but also that these “newly created norms” for sexual freedom can give rise to pressure and discomfort. Furthermore, intoxication often creates situations where women become objects of sexual assault. Finally, the chapter shows that sexual experiences in connection with intoxication are often experienced as belonging to a grey zone in which ones’ own and other’s boundaries are not clear.

The chapter by Lotte Vallentin-Holbech, Sarah Feldstein Ewing and Kristine Rømer Thomsen, which is based on two surveys, demonstrates how changes in social structures, in connection with covid-19-related restrictions, impacted alcohol consumption among high school students; that is, when restrictions were increased, high school students drank less. In particular, girls experienced fewer negative consequences of alcohol use. The chapter also shows that restrictions and changes in daily routines substantially challenged students’ well-being, especially at home, and that many felt lonely. However, it appears that there was no clear connection between changes in the young people’s well-being and changes in their alcohol consumption and related negative consequences.

Danish policy in a Nordic context

Taken together, the anthology presents novel findings on the various roles that alcohol plays in Denmark and across generations and social strata. By focusing on both historical and current contexts, we can see how alcohol use is closely intertwined in Danish culture – for better and for worse. We, as editors, hope to inspire a nuanced discussion of the challenges and possibilities related to alcohol and thereby inform alcohol policy, prevention and treatment in Denmark as well as in other Nordic countries. It is clear that with its very liberal national alcohol policy, Denmark and its drinking culture stands out in relation to all other Nordic countries. Yet the reasons for why people consume alcohol, as well as the consequences and dilemmas of such consumption are likely to be similar across the Nordic countries. This is why further cross-Nordic discussions of how to address the latter are of utmost concern, and can help inform policy, prevention, and treatment.


This article is written by

Associate professor Kristine Rømer Thomsen,

Associate professor Bagga Bjerge,

Assistant professor Lotte Vallentin-Holbech and

Professor emerita Kim Bloomfield

on the request of PopNAD