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Lithuania vodka, a long-term battle

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – Petras Malukas – | Alcoholic beverages in a shop in the village of Debeikiai, Litunaie, July 30, 2015

A few meters from the Vilnius railway station, behind the heavy wooden door of a building adjoining a church, about twenty men exchange on their addiction to alcohol, a public health problem in Lithuania.

The group “As esu” (I am) is led by a 37-year-old priest, Kestutis Dvareckas, who himself suffered from this a decade ago.

Lithuanians are the world’s largest drinkers in the world, consuming 18.2 liters of pure alcohol per year per capita, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), ahead of Belarusians, Moldovans and Russians. By comparison, consumption in France is 11.7 liters, compared with 11.4 in Germany and 12.3 liters in Great Britain, according to the WHO.

“In the Soviet era, drinking at the workplace was tolerated on all kinds of occasions, and today, for baptism or funeral, alcohol is always very present. Their life in Lithuania and alcohol is an outlet to forget their problems, “says the priest.

Among the causes advanced to this alcoholism, a failing mental health and relational problems, in many men in particular. According to figures from the WHO in 2014, 16.7% of Lithuanian men abuse or are even dependent on alcohol. Beer comes first, followed by vodka.

For the psychologist Visvaldas Legkauskas, from the Vytautas the Great University in Kaunas, the culprit is “Lithuanian pessimism”. “We do not live particularly badly, but we have that character trait and we drown our problems in alcohol or suicide …”, he said.

Over the past 15 years, the Lithuanian population has dropped by 600,000 people to 2.9 million, mainly as a result of a massive exodus to seek better wages abroad. In Lithuania, the average wage is 600 euros net, one of the lowest in the European Union, and the country experiences a relatively high level of inequality and poverty.

– Sobriety, a new leit-motiv –

The priest Kestutis Dvareckas has managed to become sober thanks to the support of his entourage and to a program of abstinence in 12 steps similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – Petras Malukas – | Lithuanians are the biggest drinkers in the world with a consumption of 18.2 liters of pure alcohol per year per capita, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)

To transmit his experience, he created this group of speakers in 2009, where dialogue, therapy and prayer allow participants to regain their feet. An association founded this year gathers twenty communities like his.

The fight against alcoholism was part of the campaign promises of the Union of Peasants and Greens (LGPU, center), which won the legislative elections in October 2016 to general surprise. For ten years, his leader has organized a non-alcoholic cultural festival in his village.

And in view of the scale of the scourge, the authorities have taken action recently.

On 1 June, the Parliament adopted by a large majority new provisions: the legal age for the consumption of alcohol was increased from 18 to 20 years, sale prohibited between 20:00 and 10:00, Be completely prohibited as of 1 January 2018. Finally, elected officials raised the rate of excise duty on alcohol.

But to see the past experiences in the fight against alcoholism, the Minister of Health Aurelijus Veryga is not optimistic. “Already in 1998, Lithuania had adopted a strategy to reduce consumption by 25%, it actually increased by 130%,” he told AFP.

– Alcohol before milk –

In this small country, 732 people, mostly men, died in 2015 as a result of alcohol consumption, according to data from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs Control; 76 people died as a result of road accidents caused by drunk drivers, cyclists or pedestrians; And 726 others were injured.

For the priest Kestutis Dvareckas, the new law is not enough. “Why do I always have to go through the liquor shelves before reaching the dairy store?” He insists.

At the village of Semeliskes, 20 km from Vilnius, Ona, a saleswoman in the small local shop, is skeptical. “Even if prices have gone up, no one is paying attention to it. People will buy as long as they have money, and they will buy five bottles instead of one to be sure they have” stock “.

To be effective, restrictions on sales should be coupled with accompanying measures, experts say.

However, the treatment of alcoholics is still very uncertain in Lithuania where the salaries are not reimbursed by the State, according to the National Health Insurance Fund.

And the public offer of care is minimal. Only five centers for dependents work in the country.

For Aurelijus Veryga, the Minister of Health, this is the site to be tackled. “We need to be able to ensure equal access (to specialized centers) to all the people involved in the different regions,” he said.

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