Poland is getting down to some basics in its struggle to turn the economy around. One of them is alcoholism. That problem may seem more the concern of social workers than economic planners until one comprehends the magnitude of its impact on the nation's ability to cope. A whopping 10 percent of the Polish labor force -- 1.2 million out of 12 million workers -- are drunk daily, according to government statistics. The cost in lost workdays and production is unimaginable.
Poles generally like to drink. So it is no easy matter for the Polish government, along with other "austerity" measures, to have announced it will considerably increase the prices of vodka and reduce the number of stores selling liquor. Clearly such measures alone will not solve the problem of poor labor discipline. Many workers turn to drink out of frustration, despair, and cynicism. Fundamental change must come through thorough-going economic and political reform. But a firm moral battle against alcohol abuse is crucial if Poles are to bring about the national "renewal" they hope for and restore their self-respect.
It may not be realized how vicious a problem alcoholism has become elsewhere in Sovietdom. The Soviet Union, for instance, faces what specialist George Feifer, writing in Harper's, calls "a devastating addiction to alcohol at work as well as after." Despite a 200-300 percent increase in vodka prices in recent years, alcoholism in the USSR has reached epidemic proportions, resulting in widespread absenteeism. Alcoholism among women is said be a major cause for rising Soviet infant mortality rates, and the Soviet press admits that children, too, are drinking heavily. Mr. Feifer quotes an American expert as calculating that Soviet alcohol consumption now accounts for about one-third of all consumer spending in food shops.
There are myriad reasons to explain the drinking and drunkenness in countries which serve and glorify the state rather than the individual and fail to give meaning and dignity to life. Yet the nations of the West, where alcoholism is also reaching alarming levels, can hardly afford to cast stones. At a conference held at John Hopkins University recently experts reported that more than 12 percent of teen-agers in the United States are today considered "high-risk" drinkers and that problem drinking among children as young as 8 years has become an "epidemic."
Can nations -- East or West -- fail to heed the dangers of this insidious phenomenon? The shocking statistics should alert people everywhere to summon up all the resources at their command to combat it.
In Poland and other Marxist countries the development of a freer, more honest , more efficient society would certainly give citizens less excuse for turning to drink, and the Polish government can only be applauded for tackling the problem head-on. But we believe, too, that the problem goes deeper -- to the heart of an individual's and a nation's moral and spiritual outlook. It is at this level that the challenge must ultimately be met. East or West, the individual must confront the question of what he is or seeks to be: a physical animal who gratifies his basest material wants, or a human being who reaches f or the highest and noblest in himself.