The import of distilled spirits to Finland was prohibited as far back as 1811. Smuggling of spirits meant that the customs service had their hands full of work throughout the 1800s. The import prohibition remained in force until the time of Finland’s independence. In 1907, the first unicameral Finnish parliament unanimously enacted an alcohol prohibition act. However, it took until 1 June 1919 for this legal act to become effective.
Right away in the summer of 1919, the smuggling of alcohol began. Customs officials were rather ill-equipped to handle their new alcohol-related tasks, although they could make use of numerous sea vessels and other maritime equipment which dated back to the time of Finland’s autonomy. However, the majority of customs ships were outdated and too slow. During the first six months, customs officials seized just over 4 000 litres of spirits and 3 600 litres of other strong alcohol. In the first years of the Prohibition Act, Customs seized most of the alcohol on fishing boats and merchant vessels. The largest quantities seized at a single time comprised some hundreds of litres.
Image: Supervision of the Prohibition Act was aimed at activities in Finland’s sea territory.
Smuggling became wide-spread very fast. By the mid-1920s, the overall number of customs offences had increased manifold. The increase was mainly due to the Prohibition Act. Customs was looked down upon as an inefficient apparatus, but the most significant problem in terms of customs enforcement was the lack of appropriations and powers. Customs had to wait until the late 1920s for improvements to its boat fleet.
Smuggling took on new forms. Alcohol was stored in cargo ships outside Finland’s territorial waters, and high-speed motorboats were used for collecting it. There was a need for an authority focusing on the supervision of territorial waters with sufficient powers to use forceful measures, when necessary. Most smuggling operations were in the hands of professional organisations of German origin.
In addition to Customs, the Police also enforced the Prohibition Act. In summer 1930, the Sea Border Guard joined Customs in keeping track of smuggling at sea. Customs handed over its ships and motorboats to the Sea Border Guard. From that time on, the Sea Border Guard conducted most of the seizures of alcohol. However, Customs confirmed the seizures and acted as prosecutor in customs offences.
The Prohibition Act was found to cause serious problems to society, as it was difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. After an advisory referendum, the Parliament of Finland decided to end the prohibition of alcohol. On 5 May 1932, state-owned alcohol stores opened their doors. It was again time to clear alcohol through Customs and to levy taxes on it. Due to high taxation, the smuggling of alcohol nevertheless continued until the Second World War. Alcohol smuggling started anew in the 1950s when the number of merchant vessels at Finnish ports again increased.
Image: Seized canisters of spirits in Helsinki.