"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.
Still, there seems to be something particular to Iranian drinking habits -- the popularity of Western culture might explain the presence of alcohol, and the poor economy could be linked to the rising rates of alcoholism, but neither fully explains how Iranians drink. For that, the prohibition itself might be to blame.
A 2006 travelogue from "the Inebriated Republic of Iran" in Modern Drunkard magazine (not the most rigorous source, to be sure, so I spoke with the author to confirm his account) toured with some of "underground boozers" who seem to be everywhere. With "a wink and a nod," a copy store clerk becomes bar tender, or a stranger becomes a drinking buddy. The author, a Westerner who has reported form inside Iran, explained to me that
the prohibition can at times lead Iranians to drink more heavily and
with more gusto for the secrecy and taboo of it. As he put it in the
2006 article, written before the Iranian economy got quite as bad as it is today, "Where liquor stores are outlawed, everywhere is a
potential liquor store."