Poland cracks down on No. 1 social ill -- alcoholism

Polish police are swooping down on illegal vodka distilleries and pedlars of illicit spirits in the most determined government drive against alcoholism here in many years.

The action coincided with a popular spending spree set off when supplies of pure alcohol appeared in the stores last week.Shops were besieged by buyers in queues as thick as those customarily marking butchershops and, more recently, dairies.

The wave of spending seemed prompted by preparations for the anti-alcohol campaign and the imminent prospect of huge increases in the price of vodka, which is almost the Polish national drink.

Much of the liquor was available in the official Pewex network of stores that sell foreign liquors and cigarettes as well as cosmetics, clothing, furnishings -- and even apartments -- for hard currency.

Marny Poles buy the pure alcohol to dilute into "drinkable" spirits at home.

A few days before anti-alcohol squads moved to close down a string of illegal distilleries and announced the issuance of summonses against some 600 clandestine pedlars, Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski had initiated a campaign for "national sobriety" that has the support of the Roman Catholic Church and the trade unions.

In a television broadcast Feb. 28 Roman Catholic Deputy Premier Jerzy Odzowski made a dramatic appeal for support of a countrywide campaign to prevent the "alcoholic degeneration of the nation."

Mr. Odzowski's appointment to the government last November was a significant gesture by which the new communist leadership hoped to secure the cooperation of the church in the far-reaching "renewal" it is promising Polish society in general.

Traditionally liquor drinking has been heavy in Poland. In recent years it has become the nation's gravest social ill.

The statistics still tell a frightening story:

* A population of 35 million ranks No. 6 among the nations of the Occidental world that consume hard liquor.

* One Pole in 7 is -- by semiofficial estimate -- an excessive or heavy drinker. About 2 1/2 million are said to consume half of the state monopoly's production of pure alcohol (in 1977, 150 million liters). Between 500,000 and 700,000 are said to be registered as alcoholics.

* Over 50 percent of 14-year-old boys drink alcohol (according to the Society to Fight Alcoholism), as do up to 80 percent of youths between 15 and 18.

Twenty years ago the country's heaviest drinkers were in their late 20s or early 30s. Now they are in the early 20s.

* More is spent on alcohol -- 14 percent of all consumer spending in 1979 -- than on clothing, footwear, and furnishing or maintaining one's home.

Officially, therapy programs exist, but often in name only, as the social worker admits. There are supposedly 400 clinics for treatment, but some are open only a few hours a week and there are not nearly enough doctors.

Recently, a parliamentary health commission reviewed 20-year-old law designed to combat alcoholism. Afterward, the Communist Party newspaper Trybuna Ludu commented that despite the "most comprehensive anti-alcohol legislation in the world" consumption had increased by leaps and bounds in the last decade.

The legislation is often vague. It forbids sales "in the vicinity" of hospitals, schools, sports centers, and rail stations. For some local authorities this means 500 yards; for many others no more than 200 yeards.

The law forbids licensing "too many" sales points --again a matter of interpretation. It was said in parliament that there is a sales point for every 750 Poles. In sweden, which is vaunted as having some of the world's most compulsive drinkers, it is 1 for every 27,000 people.

Poland's new soldier-premier has inspired a degree of political response among this normally disenchanted and skeptical population. So has his touch of discipline and austerity -- he does not take alcohol himself.

The first steps in the anti-alcohol campaign include curtailment of liquor licenses in dance halls, much more rigorous checks to curb drivers who drink, and a ban on drinking in offices and selling alcohol at all places of work. (Production losses due to drinking on the job amount to well over a half billion dollars annually.)

And, perhaps most important of all, there is to be a drastic cut in the quota of im ported grain allotted to the vodka distillers.

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