Drinking Nation

KIEV, Ukraine -- Alcohol abuse and addiction take a heavy toll on the nation’s health, longevity and productivity. Drinking starts early and the beer and booze are cheap.

Two men share a bottle of vodka in front of the monument to Taras Shevchenko, the great 19th century Ukrainian writer who suffered bouts of heavy drinking. The 21-year-old man at right says he started drinking vodka at age 15.

The sight of teenagers drinking beer, champagne or even vodka in public places – often with cigarettes dangling from their mouths – has become so commonplace that many adults in Ukraine don’t even give the young drinkers a second look.

But public health advocates believe that more adults – including the nation’s lawmakers – should be paying closer attention. They say the nation as a whole needs to take a hard look in the mirror at its culture of drinking.

“This problem is becoming a national tragedy,” said Elina Shyshkina, a member of parliament with the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko. Shyshkina is developing legislative measures to curb teenage alcoholism.

There are many telling facts, including the existence of more than 40 brands of Ukrainian-produced vodka alone. But beer is often the first encounter that teenagers have with an alcoholic drink. And in Ukraine, beer is regarded more as a soft drink, akin to Coca-Cola, under the law. The domestic brands are very cheap and widely available through street kiosks. And, unlike the minimum age of 18 for purchasing hard alcohol, any child can buy beer legally.

“Beer isn’t alcohol, according to legislation, so anybody can legally sell it even to a 5-year-old child,” said Konstantin Krasovsky, head of the Alcohol and Drug Information Center in Kiev.

But beer isn’t the only accessible alcoholic beverage to Ukraine’s teenagers, despite the law.

According to a poll by the European School Survey for Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, 70 percent of Ukrainian teenagers don’t face any problems buying light alcohol, 60 percent easily get wine and 40 percent are able to buy vodka with no obstructions.

Where all this permissiveness leads is not surprising.

Figures from the World Health Organization suggest that adult Ukrainians consume about the same level of alcohol per year as Europeans. But Ukrainians have a preference for hard alcoholic drinks, and their children drink much more than in the rest of Europe.

A 2008 World Health Organization study found that 40 percent of children in Ukraine drink alcohol – mainly beer – at least once per month.

Ukraine had the highest rate among nations surveyed, followed by Israel. According to the European School Survey for Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, many start drinking at age 13 or 14.

Moreover, alcohol abuse and addiction continues into adulthood, contributing to the nation’s declining population (now 46 million people) and increased mortality rates. An estimated 30 percent of men aged 25-30 are alcohol addicted, for instance.

According to the Health Ministry, about 40,000 deaths annually are caused by alcohol poisoning and other related diseases, as well as alcohol-related accidents. So far this year alone, traffic police recorded more than 140,000 accidents caused by drunk drivers, in which 1,683 people died.

Then there are social costs that are not so easily quantifiable.

Heavy drinking impairs judgment and lowers inhibitions – contributing to a host of social problems, from economic productivity to crime rates and even careless behavior that, for instance, can lead to an increase in the number of sexually transmitted diseases.

Whatever the reasons – enjoyment, boredom, depression – that lead people to drink, attitudes get formed early at home and reinforced as children go out onto the streets and see that everyday drinking is a normal part of life and a big part of celebrations and holidays.

“If a child sees people drinking alcohol in public places, if mothers give their 4-year-old children beer to drink, then children will drink alcohol and nobody will stop them,” said Iryna Vasylenko, mother of a 6-year-old child. Vasylenko said a majority of her friends who are parents allow their children to drink wine and beer.

Konstantin Myzhanovskiy, a therapist for alcoholics and drug abusers at Ukrainian Medical Center for Traffic Security, agreed. “If children often see their parents drinking alcohol during dinner, they will never believe it is wrong,” Myzhanovskiy said.

Anatoliy Viyevskiy, head of Ukrainian Monitoring Center for Alcohol and Drugs, said 40 percent of children get their first taste of alcohol after being offered a drink by their parents.

Secondary school teacher Iryna Rudenko from Vinnytsya was shocked by the results of an anonymous poll in her school. “Almost all of them said they regularly drink alcohol and smoke,” said Rudenko, who has seen teenagers coming to school drunk. The Kiev prosecutor’s office last year counted 132 cases of medical aid being provided to alcohol-poisoned children, while Kiev police counted at least 110 crimes committed by drunk teenagers.

So what is the solution? Drink less, certainly. But how does society get people to do that?

Public health advocates say that Ukraine has taken positive steps recently by modestly increasing excise taxes on alcohol and adopting partials bans on alcohol advertising. Beer excise was hiked this week by parliament, and is awaiting the president’s approval.

Advertising is now banned outdoors, on TV from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on the first and last pages of newspapers and magazines. However, many experts believe only a total ban on advertising is effective and that beer should be included in such alcohol advertising prohibitions.

Experts also say that stiffer tax hikes are needed to curb consumption, since Ukraine’s beer and liquor remain among the cheapest in Europe.

Krasovsky of the Alcohol Drug and Information Center believes alcohol should be sold in special stores where children are forbidden to enter. He also believes beer should be reclassified as an alcoholic beverage on the legislative level.

Others, such as Viyevskiy, head of Ukrainian Monitoring Center for Alcohol and Drugs, call for better education in schools about the health effects of alcohol abuse and addiction.

Verkhovna Rada member Shyshkina of Tymoshenko’s Bloc wants to stiffen fines for selling alcohol to minors or offering them alcohol. Shyshkina also proposes forbidding sponsorship of TV and radio programs, concerts and sport events by alcohol-producing companies. She would also increase tax from advertising of alcohol and beer up to 20 percent of its cost.

Other nations have banned drinking in public, requiring the alcohol beverages to be consumed in bars or regulated settings such as cafes.

Experts, however, say that Ukraine is far from adopting a coordinated national strategy and comprehensive response. Such a strategy and the will to carry it out may emerge in individual homes throughout the nation, the way that attitudes to alcohol are formed now.

Psychologists say teenagers drink alcohol because they don’t feel their parents are helping them solve their problems. Rudenko said, among the children she polled, those who drink alcohol regularly said they badly crave more communication with their parents.

“They don’t need the most expensive computers, they need understanding,” Myzhanovskiy, the therapist for alcoholics and drug abusers, said.

Source: Kyiv Post


Adelaine S. said…
If they want to avoid younger ones from drinking, it must start with the older ones. Parents, who are viewed by their children to be their role model, should be the first one to be changed. If they are worried for their children's sake, then they should stop drinking or at least, don't let their children see them drink alcohol. The younger a person started drinking, the higher the possibility that the person will get complications. To read more about alcohol and substance abuse, you may visit http://seasonsmalibu.com/alcohol-and-drug-abuse-treatment/
Ron Gluck said…