‘You’re Not a Person if You Don’t Drink.’ How This Tiny European Country Developed the World’s Worst Drinking Problem (excerpt)
By Madeline Roache
August 29, 2019
PUHOI, Moldova – By January 2018 the mayor of Puhoi was fed up. His assistant kept turning up to work drunk. His colleague wasn’t the only one; sometimes it seemed to him as if everyone in this Moldovan village of 5,500 people had a drinking problem. So the mayor, Petru Frunze, decided to hold a competition. Any couple who could stay sober for six months would receive a cash prize of 1,000 leu ($240) and jobs. Twenty couples signed up, but only one succeeded. As promised, Frunze found them jobs as cleaners in the capital city of Chisinau, around 15 miles away. He even covered their travel costs. But within a few months, they had both relapsed and turned back to alcohol. “This life isn’t for us,” they told him. The competition never ran again. “If we had just one success story, it would have been worth it,” says Nina Iurcu, who succeeded Frunze as mayor in April 2019.
In Puhoi, alcohol is the lifeblood of the economy and the community. Almost everybody works for the local Asconi winery, and almost everyone distills their own wine. Alcohol is currency, used to pay people for small jobs and favors. “You’re not a person if you don’t drink,” says Nicolae Rusu, a 35-year-old construction worker, who says he used to make 300 liters of his own wine each year. Puhoi is no different to many other villages in this Eastern European country that borders Romania and Ukraine. The wine industry employs almost a tenth of the national workforce and income generated from viticulture forms 15% of the national annual budget. But the country is dependent on alcohol in many more ways than one.
Moldova has the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world and thehighest death rate linked to drinking. One in four deaths are related to alcohol while the world’s average is one in 20. The latest 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) data found that people over the age of 15 drink on average 15.2 liters of pure alcohol (including alcohol made at home or illegally) per capita each year, the equivalent of around 167 bottles of wine. Following closely is Lithuania with 15 liters and the Czech Republic with 14.4, while Europe’s average is 9.8. “Every family has a person with a drinking problem,” says Tudor Vasiliev, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction and a coordinator of the National Alcohol Control Program.
Accurate figures for Moldova are hard to reach because up to 70% of alcohol consumed is homemade wine, says Olga Penina, a lecturer of Public Health at Chisinau’s State University of Medicine and Pharmacy. The wine-drinking culture sets Moldova and Georgia apart from other post-Soviet countries, where people prefer to drink spirits. The “cult of wine is strong”, says Penina. “Fighting it is problematic.”
Although alcohol consumption levels have overall decreased in Europe, former Soviet countries like Moldova are still home to the world’s heaviest drinking populations. And it’s taking a devastating toll on public health. Alcohol contributes to the deaths of one in five Russians, and it’s among the main reasons for lower life expectancy in the ex-USSR compared to Western countries. In Moldova, where liver cancer and liver cirrhosis are more common than anywhere else in Europe, men live to an average age of 68 and women, 75. Europe’s averages are 79 and 84 respectively.
In the Soviet Union, little was done to curb excessive drinking. It was even encouraged as alcohol production was a very profitable industry for the Soviet government, according the Marya Levintova, a public health expert on Russia. Levintova and a number of other other academics including Mark Schrad said that alcohol in post-Soviet countries has been a “statecraft”. While generating revenue for the government, it has also stymied dissent and promoted autocracy. In his 2014 book Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy and the Secret History of the Russian State, Schrad wrote that “vodka became an instrument of state domination.”
This perception also exists in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, where corruption and political instability are rife. “It’s a way of keeping the population passive,” says Ivan Lungu, a 38-year-old recovering alcoholic, who quit drinking a couple of years ago. “Drunk people don’t protest.”