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Estonia's fight against alcoholism drained of resources

  • 2004-11-01
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - Just beyond the city center, and Tallinn's finest shopping mall, runs a railway line. On the other side of that - on the wrong side of the tracks, as they say - lies a rather less salubrious quarter of town.

Here a run-down wooden shack advertises its services as a bottle bank. A quartet of unwashed Russians sit and drink in the sordid splendor of its dimly lit shopfront, an Aladdin's cave of glimmering, stinking, brown, green and colorless glass.

But the shopfront's just a front. The true nature of the business is revealed by the shop's clients: elderly, destitute, they shamble in with their plastic bags bulging with bottles and leave a few minutes later with a solitary bottle. The establishment's proprietors are in fact purveyors of homemade hootch.

Don't be fooled by the romantic image of redneck distillers in log cabins brewing honest-to-goodness organic moonshine. Here in Estonia, the preferred mode of production involves mixing industrial ethanol with water and selling it as vodka. Three years ago 68 people died when one such hootchster used methanol instead of ethanol. He's currently serving five years in jail.

The tragedy was an awful reminder of the not-so-hidden drinking culture that permeates every social stratum in Estonia. But what, if anything, has been done since then to improve the situation?

A state of intoxication

In 1996, the year before the government began its alcoholism and drug abuse prevention program, about 1,500 people died as a consequence of drink-related incidents or illnesses. That's three times the European average.

Alcohol was held responsible for 40 percent of road traffic accidents, and for 60 percent - 70 percent of violent crime. One-third of all patients in psychiatric hospitals - a total of 8,874 people - were there as a result of addiction to drink.

More recent figures are unavailable. According to Kristina Tauts, head of Estonia's Health Development Center, the funds aren't available to do the research. However, she admits that the situation is getting worse.

"When we look at the figures on alcohol consumption - the enormous amounts we're consuming - it looks like we're trying to solve the alcohol problem by drinking it," says Tauts. "We don't know why we're drinking the way we are in Estonia. It might be because of family related problems - maybe the parents drink. It's also related to social problems. Especially in northeast Estonia, many children are seeking an escape - they are very poor, their parents are unemployed, they have no place to go."

Yet it seems that alcoholism is no longer a priority for the Estonian government. This is the last year of the alcoholism and drug abuse prevention program - it's been canceled eight years into its planned 10-year run. As of January 2005, it will be replaced by the National Drug Prevention Strategy.

"From next year, the spending on the alcohol problem will be reduced to the salaries of a couple of experts, and some money for working space and stationery," says Tauts. "We hope to receive additional funds - about 1 million kroons (65,000 euros) - to do preventative work with children.

"The stigmatization of alcoholics is the most difficult thing to fight because it exists on every level in Estonia - from top politicians to common people. We don't have one common and accepted alcohol policy.

Different government ministries are trying to take different measures. Our government has been working to solve the problem by raising taxes on alcohol. Illegal alcohol production is one of society's reactions to higher taxes. And police concentrate on their raids on illegal alcohol shops."

This year police seized less than half the illegal alcohol it did last year, although it's hard to tell whether this reflects police efficiency or incompetence.

In the first nine months of this year, Estonian police recorded 3,077 crimes committed under the influence of alcohol - a 7.6 percent increase on the figures reported this time last year. And while alcohol-related violent crimes have dropped by 42 percent, instances of drunk-driving have risen by 43 percent.

The problem is clearly deep rooted in Estonia but the government seems more intent on palliating the problem than seriously addressing its root causes.

Forgotten victims

Looking at the grim statistics on alcohol-related crime, accidents and disease, it's easy to forget the other victims of alcohol - the alcoholics' families.

Seven years ago, Piret joined the Estonian chapter of the Alcoholics Anonymous family group, Adult Children of Alcoholics. Her father was an alcoholic.

"I thought my father was a perfectly ordinary man," she says. "He drank, like everybody else's father in our village. Men drank and women nagged, and that was it. Instead of considering the alcoholic lifestyle as something abnormal, I considered myself a misfit. I figured that if I could kill all my "bad" feelings, like anger and irritation and discontent, and become totally numb to the things that bothered me, then I would be all right. I wanted to become cold-hearted and tough, just like the woman my mother was."

Since she joined the AA in 1997, Piret's life has changed beyond recognition. Things have improved, but, as she says, it's not all roses. Nine months ago, she gave birth to her first child. A few months ago, her father died.

"It seems as if my mother's trying to put me into my father's old role of the family scapegoat. He used to be blamed for everything that was wrong with the world and with my mother's life, and now the blame's coming my way. It's a fine example of alcoholism being a mental disease, not just a physical one. The alcoholic is gone, the drinking is gone along with him, but the family relationships stay unchanged - the same roles are played on and on, with just a few minor changes in the cast."