The Brewers of Europe is circulating a new report by the Swedish Retail Institute which claims "the Swedish authorities have lost control over a large part of the alcohol trade". This comes as the Nordic country, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, steps up its efforts to reform European alcohol policy.
The controversial report, commissioned by the Brewers of Europe, says Sweden's "restrictive alcohol policy with high prices and taxes" has failed to reduce alcohol abuse and fostered a booming underground trade in cheap beer.
The availability of alcohol to young people is greater than ever, according to the report, which alleges that "criminal organisations have gained a hold on alcohol distribution".
The claims were dismissed by Maria Renström, director of the public health division of Sweden's Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, who said per capita alcohol consumption had increased from 1995 to 2004 but has since decreased.
"Sweden is still among the countries with a low per capita consumption in Europe," she said.
Renström insisted the brewers' suggestion that illegal imports have dramatically increased was not correct. "There is no evidence of any huge increase. The fact is more that private imports have decreased by around 30%, mostly due to the weak Swedish currency," she said.
The secretary-general of the Brewers of Europe, Rodolphe de Looz-Corswarem, said Sweden's policies had led to a "black market", where huge quantities of imported alcohol are resold for far below the normal Swedish market price.
Sweden hit back by saying it conducts rigorous ongoing monitoring of alcohol imports, sales and consumption. "We have broad control of the development," said Renström.
"And there is nothing indicating that alcohol consumption has increased in the population, which would have been the case if the illegal alcohol trade [had] increased. Sweden has a comprehensive alcohol policy with all sectors involved. Police, customs and taxation authorities are cooperating and for the moment they have increased their actions," she said.
The row between the current EU presidency and the industry has been fermenting for months as brewers seek to mount a defence against Sweden's alleged desire to curb alcohol advertising and increased prices.
As part of its campaign, the Brewers of Europe also published a report by Ernst & Young highlighting the major contribution that the beer industry makes to European economies. That report reveals a significant growth in the number of SMEs in the brewing sector, with the number of smaller breweries increasing by 25% since 2006.
The Ernst & Young report showed Europe remains the world's largest producer of beer, despite the economic downturn and stiff competition from the Chinese and American brewing industries.
The brewers said the industry provides 2.5 million jobs in Europe, when indirect employment is included. The production and sale of beer brings €59 billion to Europe's economy, with a further €57 billion collected by governments in beer tax revenues.
This too was rebutted by Sweden, which pointed to a 2003 report compiled when the EU executive adopted its alcohol policy, and which estimated the total tangible cost of alcohol in Europe to be €125 billion.
Swedish official Renström said the priority during Stockholm's spell at the EU's helm would be to strengthen and implement the bloc's alcohol strategy, which focuses on reducing harm to young people and the elderly.
Sweden has also initiated a discussion on ways to improve the protection of children from alcohol marketing, "and to increase knowledge of effective measures, for example the tool price policy," she said.
According to Renström, Sweden has no intention of harmonising EU alcohol policy and would not propose any new regulation at EU level.
"The intention is to build on consensus, exchange of good practices, build a common knowledge base and the protection of public health within all policy areas," she said.