How do we get Eastern Europe on the wagon?

By Darja Irdam

Eastern Europe is well known for its grim weather, grumpy service, gorgeous women, Communist past and excessive alcohol consumption. In fact, a Western mind struggles to understand how people can drink so much on so many occasions and likewise, how people can drink what they drink (because often it includes spirits literally not intended for human consumption). Excessive drinking in those parts of Europe does not only cause near-permanent damage to the image of their countries, the economic efficiency of labor and the crime rates, it also comes with the price tag of many human lives, including those of children. Naturally, alcoholism is a matter of concern for many, if not all, Eastern European governments, yet at the same time, alcohol taxes are sources of significant revenue for governments chronically struggling with deficit budgets. So what can be done to prevent people from drinking themselves to misery and is it rational for the state to do something about it?

“Only 56 per cent of adult males would
survive to the day
 (and the drinking party)
of their 65th birthday.”

To begin with, let us consider the extent of drinking and the range of alcohol-related problems. According to official statistics, excessive drinking was not so grave an issue before the collapse of the USSR. This was especially true of the Baltic States, which were famous for having the highest life-expectancy rates in the Soviets. Of course, the average Vanya would drink even in Soviet times, but somehow, they would find a way to stay alive. By the mid-90s, however, only 56 per cent of adult males would survive to the day (and the drinking party) of their 65th birthday. One of the main causes of this sharp decline in life expectancy was drinking and the consequent alcohol-related problems.

The period of rapid transition in which the new countries of the former Soviet Union went from central planning to a market economy was characterized by the coming of one economic cataclysm after another. The policy of mass privatization accompanying acute transition caused a skyrocketing level of unemployment, and together with delayed or withheld wages, it resulted in a dramatic impoverishment of the broad population. Even the people who held on to wage-paying jobs and were not paid in kind witnessed their purchasing-power being hollowed out in a matter of months. Millions of people responded desperately by drinking. Alcoholism became most prevalent among middle-aged men, the demographic who found themselves in the most hopeless economic situation. The effect on public health did not take long to appear. Along with an increased incidence of cardiovascular and chronic respiratory system diseases, the level of suicides directly related to alcohol consumption grew by 70 per cent. The levels of both alcohol poisoning and drunk homicides in Eastern Europe were roughly 10 times that of Sweden. When the numbers for the whole post-Soviet zone are taken into account, it turns out that about 70 per cent of men and at least 50 per cent of all women would have been considered heavy drinkers by Western standards. According to the UN, the habit of drinking away the problems caused by turbulent socio-economic changes in the early 90s took a toll of 10 million human lives.

“The state should controlnot prohibit
the business of the alcohol and tobacco industries.”

Apart from the direct health impact of excessive drinking, alcohol consumption is also significantly correlated with unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary life-style. These, in turn, increase the risks of the health problems of modernity: obesity, various cardio-vascular diseases and cancers. In other words, Eastern Europeans started suffering from white-collar diseases without getting the white-collar jobs Alcohol even causes risks for the reproductive health of the population. High alcohol consumption among women might cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, leading to growth deficiencies, facial anomalies, and problematic developments of the central nervous system in children. On top of that, drinking is directly related to the increase of HIV/AIDS rates of the heterosexual population, including representatives of better-off socioeconomic groups.

So, moral considerations aside, the harm caused by alcoholism to human health is obvious. It is also difficult to argue that increases in tax revenues can compensate for the millions of lives lost in the labor force and among taxpayers. Now, what should the governments do to improve, or at least to stabilize the situation? Prohibition is out of the question; Eastern Europeans have some painful memories of that from recent history. Alcohol restrictions imposed in the USSR by Gorbachev’s government in 1985 stabilized drinking only for a short time. While people in developed countries, like Finland, can afford taking weekends off to escape the world of highly priced alcohol in Estonia where they drink themselves unconscious, people in less wealthy countries will simply switch to alcoholic substitutes. Thus, people drink aftershave (sold with fruity fragrances – raspberry and lemon – to make drinking a more pleasurable experience for gourmets) and homemade booze (which comes in ‘mild’ variants as well as versions fired up by everything ranging from guano to medicaments and photographic developer). Therefore, simply cutting off official supplies will not work.

If we try to look for more effective policy solutions proposed by the leading academic studies, it is clear that scholars emphasize the ability of the state to control, not to prohibit the business of the alcohol and tobacco industries. Some recent public health studies demonstrate that a combination of policies together form the most effective prevention of alcoholism on a population level. Those should at least include limiting the access to alcohol in space and time and an increased alcohol tax. Moreover, it is important to make all alcohol subjected to taxation, rather than simply to increase the taxes for hard liquor.

“The ability to hold your liquor
is one of the defining features of manhood,
male pride and virile glory.”

However debatable from an economic perspective, it is generally advised in the literature to introduce state monopolies on alcohol sales: spirits should only be sold by state-approved vendors, and not even at licensed sale points. Besides, it has been proven that a reduced number of hours when alcohol can be legally purchased leads to a remarkable decrease in homicides and accidents, while a higher legal age for buying alcohol significantly reduces the frequency of drunk driving.

Eastern European politicians should stop daydreaming about eventually arriving at a sober society. Heavy drinking, for all its individual impact, is primarily a social problem. Hence, it requires a state-level solution, even if there is no easy cure and might sometimes short-circuit the free market. Apart from considering the policies discussed above, it is important that governments implement programs aimed at informing the population about the harms and risks associated with drinking; advertisement restrictions might also be considered.

However, Eastern Europe is still Eastern Europe, and has a long culture of heavy drinking. Heavy drinking is considered one of the most important symbols of the machismo so cherished in those parts. The ability to hold your liquor is one of the defining features of manhood, male pride and virile glory. It is also an inevitable condition for an active social life especially among the young. Only nerds and cowards abstain; cool guys prove their virility by drinking ‘za zdorovye’. Holding such ideals, it is no wonder that drinking is so prevalent. After all, culture is one of the strongest advertisements imaginable. It is time for Eastern European politicians to realize that a healthy lifestyle should not just be the prerogative of individual hipsters and boring academics, but a task for the government to promote to the entire population.

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class.