Boston — The United States and the Soviet Union are waging a common war - the war on alcoholism and drugs. A front-line soldier in that war is the Rev. J.W. Canty, an American Episcopal priest who views the addiction problem in the two superpower countries as a unique opportunity to cooperate on a joint project.
Reacting to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's singling out of alcohol abuse as a top domestic issue in the USSR, Mr. Canty founded the Soviet-United States Joint Conference on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction in 1985. The aim is to promote innovative approaches to fighting the common enemy of addiction in both countries.
Canty describes the joint conference as ``an ongoing dialogue, not a one-time event. We are here to promote exchanges of information, exchanges of delegations, and to bring all our resources together.''
In his own war on alcoholism, Mr. Gorbachev has raised the price of vodka, cut production in half, raised the legal drinking age to 21, curtailed the hours when alcohol can be sold in stores and restaurants, and increased penalties for public drunkenness. Yet alcoholism remains a serious problem.
In July the first delegation of Soviet officials came to the US to study alcoholism and drug addiction in this country. Canty escorted the four Soviet physicians on a tour of New York City parks to observe alcoholics and drug addicts.
Back in the USSR, according to Canty, a fledgling group of Alcoholics Anonymous called ``Moscow Beginners'' was started in Moscow in August. A spokeswoman for AA in New York said that the international organization is operating in 115 countries, but that she was not aware of a registered Soviet group. (Because of the AA emphasis on anonymity, the spokeswoman asked that her name not be used.)
``We don't go in and say, `Now we're going to sober up Russia,''' the spokeswoman says. AA has translated and produced its three basic pamphlets in Russian and made these available in the Soviet Union.
Within the Soviet bloc, Poland is the country most directly involved with AA. The US branch of the organization was contacted by a recovered Polish alcoholic more than 10 years ago, according to the AA spokeswoman. Today there are 80 registered groups in Poland.
The spiritual basis of AA and the usual conclusion of meetings with a traditional prayer to God conflicts with the officially atheistic Soviet ideology. Therefore, meetings conclude with a moment of silence rather than the traditional prayer to God.
Canty says that although the number of alcoholics in the USSR is officially put at 4.5 million, the actual figure could be several times that. There are an estimated 10 million alcoholics in the US.
``The story of a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting in Moscow is basically the same story as a recovering person in Milwaukee,'' says Canty. ``The details may be different, but one can identify the same feelings in each one of the stories. The way alcoholism has affected the person's life is the same in both countries.''
But, he says, some real differences exist between the two nations' approaches to alcoholism.
Americans have utilized more recovering people to help other recovering people, whereas in the Soviet Union medical officials or professionals are the predominant source of help for these people. Canty sees a merging of the two systems developing through the cooperation efforts.
One element not present in the Soviet Union is role models - well-known people who have recovered from an addiction. Therefore, one of the goals of the Joint Conference is to share American role models with the Soviet people.
The Soviet delegation visited with former President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, a recovered alcoholic who has founded a treatment center in California. Elizabeth Taylor, an outspoken recovered addict, has been invited to the Soviet Union, where she would talk to a small group of drama students about her road to addiction and eventual recovery. This session would be filmed and shown on Soviet television. Canty says the Joint Conference is trying to draw on the curiosity that the Soviets have about the US and its famous stars to ``help break down the denial of alcoholism.''
The Soviet Committee on Radio and Television has agreed to show a documentary done by Carol Burnett in which she portrays a woman who recovers and opens a halfway house for alcoholics. The hope is to generate interest by billing it as a drama starring a famous American actress and comedian.
``We've declared a creative war on addiction, a joint war where we want to enlist as allies all of the performing artists of the societies. We're going to utilize professional scientists and physicians, which has been the traditional approach, but we also want the help of the artists of the societies,'' Canty says.
In line with this philosophy, the Joint Conference has met with the Ministry of Culture in the Soviet Union to consider commissioning the Bolshoi Ballet to do a new ballet about alcoholism.
``The scars of the cold war go so deep that we are constantly operating against a whole set of fears, a set of scars and a set of misunderstandings,'' Canty says. But the hope is to provide mutual inspiration for Soviets and Americans battling addiction.
The concept of prevention is commanding a great deal of attention in the US, USSR, and throughout the world, according to Ernest J. Steed, executive director of the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency. Mr. Steed met with officials in the Soviet Union in September. He says their emphasis is on providing education, research and support for abstinence.
An All Union Voluntary Temperance Promotion Society is said to have 14 million members who are committed to sobriety and abstinence, says Steed. The Soviets have set up their temperance movement, he adds, ``without any religious overtones by accepting and promoting the value of nondrinking in order to build a better future.''