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Iceland Gets A Legal Brew, Must Wait 10 Months to Buy It

May 10, 1988 GMT

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) _ The Parliament voted Tuesday to legalize beer after 73 years of prohibition, but Icelanders will have to wait 10 more months before they can quaff a cold one.

After a year-long debate, a full turnout of the upper house of Iceland’s Althing (Parliament) voted 13-8 to stamp out the last vestiges of prohibition on the island and permit the sale of beer with an alcoholic content above 2.25 percent.

A dozen beer-lovers flashed victory signs outside the Althing after the post-midnight vote, but there was little other public rejoicing.

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The beer won’t go on sale until March 1, and while no price has been set, pro- and anti-prohibitionists both called for high prices, fearing the change could encourage alcohol abuse.

Former lawmaker Jon Magnusson, who supported legalization, said: ″It’s very important that people realize that beer is just as dangerous as other alcohol.″

Left-wing Althing member Svavar Gestsson, who opposed legalization, said: ″This is a very unfortunate step and a dreadful experience for me both as a parent and a parliamentarian.″

Beer, like other alcoholic drinks in Iceland, is expected to come under strict controls - available only in bars and restaurants or state liquor stores which have a monopoly on retailing and close early.

The pro-beer lobby argued that legalization was inevitable, given the bureaucratic tangle that prohibition has caused.

Beer has always provoked ambivalent feelings among the 243,000 Icelanders. On the one hand, beer is banned, but on the other hand, Iceland’s national drink is a skull-bashing distillation called ″Black Death.″

The islanders voted in a 1908 referendum for a ban on all alcoholic drinks, although it didn’t take effect until Jan. 1 1915.

The ban was partially lifted after Spain refused to buy Iceland’s main export, fish, unless Iceland bought Spanish wines, and in 1933, prohibition was repealed - except for beer.

A powerful temperance movement continued to block the suds, but the first crack appeared in 1980. Businessman David Scheving Thorsteinsson went to court demanding the same rights as airline crews who were bringing in internationally approved allowances of duty-free beer.

Although Thorsteinsson lost, the publicity forced a change in the rules to allow Icelanders arriving from abroad to bring in 12.2 pints of foreign alcoholic beer.

This spurred local companies to brew their own alcoholic beers for sale at Reykjavik’s airport, one of the few in the world which has a duty-free store for incoming travelers.

The anti-prohibition lobby returned to the warpath, arguing that it was unconstitutional that Icelanders who could afford foreign travel were entitled to buy beer.

When the latest bill entered Parliament, an opinion poll showed 64.3 percent in favor of legalization. When 16 doctors published newspaper ads warning of the health hazards, 133 others riposted with ads saying alcoholism couldn’t get worse if people switched from spirits to beer.

The bill passed in the lower house on April 18 by a 23-17 vote with two members absent.