Forbidden Drink: Why Alcoholism Is Soaring in Officially Booze-Free Iran

With a worsening economy, thriving black market, and prohibition-enforced absence of social norms, Iranians' heavy drinking may be turning into a public health crisis.

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Smugglers along the Iran-Iraq border carry cases of liquor and beer. (AP)

The Islamic Republic of Iran takes its ban on alcohol, which goes back to a few months after the 1979 revolution, so seriously that taking a drink here can get you publicly whipped. Last week, one Iranian couple, who had endured 80 lashes each on their first and second alcohol convictions, got the death sentence for their third.

But Iranians still drink. They drink smuggled booze -- an estimated 60 to 80 million liters came over the border last year alone, mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan -- and they drink homemade booze, often the ouzo-meets-moonshine aragh saghi, made from raisins. They drink at home, drink at the corner shops that double as clandestine liquor stores, and apparently they drink behind the wheel: when Tehran police administered random alcohol tests to city drivers, a staggering 26 percent turned out to be drunk.

So many Iranians drink to excess that health officials there are now warning of a national threat to public health, citing a spike in alcohol-related ailments. Police are confiscating 69 percent more alcohol than they did last year, according to an Iranian newspaper.

"We should be sensitive about this issue and pay attention to it even more than we do to other ailments, such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases," Iran's deputy health minister said, a statement that seems as much aimed at reactionary hard-liners in the government as at regular citizens. That an official would publicly acknowledge the scale of the problem is, in itself, a sign of the severity: police will crack down on individuals but prefer not to admit how widespread alcoholism has become, the BBC notes in reporting on the announcement, because of how politically sensitive the issue can be.

Why are Iranians such heavy drinkers? After all, not only are they deterred by the lash, but they're deeply religious: a 2008 Gallup poll found that Iranians overwhelmingly support sharia law, which forbids alcohol consumption. You might say that there are three schools of thought: it's a way of coping with the disastrous economy and politics, a byproduct of the increasingly Westernized youth, or, perhaps most convincingly, an indication of what prohibition can mean for the social norms that typically keep us from having a third shot before lunchtime.

Could you really blame Iranians, who face international isolation, a cruelly oppressive regime, soaring food prices, and the threat of war, for wanting an extra drink? "Personal reasons are the most important factors which lead to the spread of alcohol consumption in society," Iran's deputy health minister said in his public statement on the rise of alcoholism. "Some think this is a way [to cope] with their frustrations." The head of Iran's Social Work Society explained to Radio Liberty, "We live in a society where there is economic pressure, social problems, and high inflation. People escape with alcohol to alleviate the pain."

Most Iranians are under 35, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them, especially in cities, are fond of Western culture and Western habits, which includes imbibing. "In many of the country's major cities, where residents listen to popular music, use social media, and watch satellite television -- all behind closed doors -- the black market for booze continues to boom," Omed Memarian wrote at the Daily Beast, calling the bottle another front in the Iranian "culture war" over Western influence.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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