Drinking Habits Take Toll in Baltics

RIGA, Latvia -- Augustinas Grevys' glory was short-lived when he bested three friends by being the last to pass out when each downed nearly a quart of moonshine.

Grevys didn't get the chance to spend his 20 litas ($7) winnings _ enough to buy two more bottles of booze _ because the 34-year-old Lithuanian died within hours. His three friends were found comatose but eventually recovered.

That incident five years ago triggered calls for action to stem binge drinking in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, yet they remain near the bottom of European Union health categories linked to excessive drinking _ incidence of liver disease, traffic deaths, suicides, alcohol poisoning and psychosis.

None of the three former Soviet republics has a comprehensive, well-financed program to fight alcohol abuse, and deeply entrenched cultural traditions of heavy drinking show no sign of fading.

"We are a tiny nation of 1.4 million people and one of the world's fastest shrinking populations," said Lauri Bekmann, an Estonian temperance activist. "A country like ours will die out if it keeps drinking like this."

Lithuania has a suicide and self-inflicted injury rate of 39 per 100,000 people _ by far the highest in Europe, including non-EU countries such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and experts link that to high alcohol consumption. Estonia ranks third and Latvia fourth in the EU.

Alcohol is partly blamed for making Baltic roads among the most perilous in the 25-nation EU. Latvia has the bloc's highest traffic fatality rate _ 220 deaths per 1 million residents in 2004 _ just ahead of Lithuania at 216.

The World Health Organization says the average Estonian consumes 3.54 gallons of pure alcohol a year, the third highest in the EU. Latvia and Lithuania have lower figures, but the statistics don't include consumption of illegal liquor.

WHO estimates the Baltic states and Slovakia have the EU's highest unrecorded alcohol consumption _ as much as 1.85 gallons annually per person in Latvia. Dr. Astrida Stirna, head of Latvia's State Addiction Agency, estimates 25 percent to 30 percent of alcohol drunk in Latvia is illegal booze.

In the Estonian port of Parnu five years ago, 68 people died and 80 were injured by a single batch of methanol-laced alcohol, which can cause blindness or death in small amounts. Seven people from an eastern Latvian town died from a bad batch last year.

But Baltic residents earn some of the EU's lowest wages and are willing to risk periodic lethal batches of cheap illegal alcohol. Moonshine is readily available in virtually every village, town and city.

Health experts attribute the bingeing problem to poverty, a lack of political will to fight alcohol abuse, Baltic drinking traditions and the ease and low cost of obtaining alcohol, including bootleg booze.

"Even among the young people, I don't know a single person who doesn't drink to get drunk. Even 16- and 17-year-olds drink so much they can't make it home at night," said one moonshiner. He insisted on being quoted only by his first name, Mareks, to avoid criminal prosecution.

It is considered bad form in the Baltics to refuse the offer of a drink or not to finish a bottle of liquor once it has been opened. The person who finishes a bottle is expected to buy another one.

For many, the June 23-24 midsummer night celebrations often include dusk-til-dawn drinking bouts.

Ben Baumberg, a researcher at the Institute of Alcohol Studies in England, said the Baltic countries could learn from their Nordic neighbors, which have similar drinking traditions.

"In Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, they also tend to drink the same way, but their level of drinking is much lower," Baumberg said.

He said people in those countries are more aware of alcoholism's harms, and their governments have the will to address the problem. "My impression is that you just don't have that right now in the Baltic countries," he said.

A few small steps have been taken. Estonia has a zero-tolerance drunk driving law in which just a single drink will put drivers in the wrong. Latvia enacted a law last year imposing an $850 fine or 15-day jail term for first-time offenders.

But experts say much more is needed. Some activists want Estonia to adopt a model like Sweden, where high taxes make drinking very expensive and all liquor is sold through state-run stores.

"If we limited alcohol sales and advertising, I think it would have a positive effect on alcoholism," said Bekmann, who heads the Estonian Temperance Union. "We can't change the older generation, but we can still try to reach young people."

By TIMOTHY JACOBS The Associated Press

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