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The Vodka Diaries

Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

Are Estonia's policymakers aware that their country has a drinking problem?

When you think of a drunk, a certain image may come to mind. Maybe he has rosy cheeks, a scruffy white beard, and a mouth half full of yellow teeth. But living in Estonia, I have seen all kinds of drunks: young kids in tracksuits, old men in rags, round ladies with bad haircuts. Each day I watch the parade from my office window. They deposit their bottles at the local taarapunkt, and then make like ants to the shop next door to buy something strong to quench their thirst.

My friend downstairs, an old army veteran, estimates that 90 percent of the shop's customers are of the alcoholic persuasion. "They go into the A ja O empty handed and only come out with one thing, a big bottle," the vet shakes his head. "It's alarming." I thought he was exaggerating at first, but I have been watching the A ja O daily, and I fear he may be right.

A ja O stands for Alati ja Odavalt (“Always and Cheaply”), a fitting name for a store that does good business in beverages. The moniker is only partially true. While alcohol in Estonia is no doubt cheap, politicians have at least seen to it that it is not always available. For example, a recently enacted law prohibits its sale from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. in the morning. That doesn't seem to have slowed the parade of drunks across the street, though. Estonia's drinkers can sleep off their hangovers with the knowledge that they have a 12-hour window in which to get loaded every day. 
With officially-designated booze, at least. A series of studies authored by researchers at the University of Tartu in collaboration with partners at universities in the UK and Hungary have found that Estonian alcoholics have come to favor "surrogate alcohols" such as colognes and aftershaves, not only for their high ethanol content, but because they can be purchased round the clock from 24-hour kiosks. The same researchers noted in a study last month that alcoholic liver cirrhosis mortality "dramatically increased" between 1992 and 2008. 
The question of how to tackle this problem is a sensitive one. Estonia glides along on a river of drinks, from Independence Day in February to the back-to-back drinking extravaganza that is Christmas and New Year's. Alcohol is part of almost every important Estonian ceremony. When politicians form a new coalition, they toast with a glass of champagne. At every wedding, a guest is designated the viinamees – "vodka man" – and entrusted with a bottle of strong stuff to fill every empty shot glass. Alcohol is entwined with the national culture. Telling Estonians not to drink is like telling them not to sing. 
Estonia also does good business in alcohol. The country has become a kind of Mecca for Northern European drunks, as anyone who had taken a ferry from Helsinki or Stockholm to Tallinn will attest. It's widely known that Finnish beer is often cheaper in Tallinn than it is in Helsinki, and the shops that line the waterfront of the Estonian capital gladly keep Estonia's neighbors stocked with their poison of choice. But while Estonia has been keen to make money off its richer neighbors' vices, and more conservative alcohol policies, its leaders seem reluctant to address the impact that the country's relatively liberal alcohol policy has on the national health.
Listen to Estonia's major parties and you will hear a lot about unemployment, the coming of the euro, the European Union, NATO, Iraq, Afghanistan, the tax system, the pressing need to make more Estonians, the legal continuity of the Estonian republic, personal freedom, social welfare, equality, solidarity, and so on. But you won't find an appeal to stop the flow of drunks between the local taarapunkt and A ja O. It begs the question: do they even think it's a problem?
Sometimes I wonder if such a temperance project would be even too much for Estonia's policymakers. Meeting the criteria for accession to the European Monetary Zone was achievable. But in a battle between Estonia's drunks and its political elite, it is not assured that the politicians would come up victorious.
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