Alcohol Quandaries

Alcohol policies enforced in Poland are rather strict. Drinking beer on a park bench is considered a misdemeanor and can get you fined. The Soviet legacy lives on in Poland in the form of drunk tanks on steroids – no longer a mere cell for the inebriated, Polish drunk tanks are separate institutions combining the characteristics of a jail (release is conditional upon meeting a strict set of requirements, in this particular case the primary requirement is regaining clarity of mind disturbed by alcohol), a psychiatric hospital (the staff has authority to use straitjackets and other forms of restraint), and a rehab facility (they have information kiosks where the interested parties can receive exhaustive information on treatment options). The system put in place to counter alcohol-related pathologies is quite extensive, sometimes absurdly so, e.g. the “sober upbringing bill” specifically forbids advertisers from using symbols that would link alcohol and leisure. Nonetheless, basically all beer commercials (advertising hard liquor is forbidden) have to reference that particular sphere of human activity, as the average person doesn’t really drink at work or at school.

Meanwhile, during a radio interview, the head of the State Agency for Prevention of Alcohol Related Problems (SAPARP), a state-funded institution tasked with enforcing policies related to the alcohol industry and alcohol addiction, stated that Polish alcohol policies are among the most liberal in all of Europe. According to him, the primary source of the problem lies in the state’s lax policies regarding the granting of liquor licenses.

While we’re on the subject of stores that sell liquor, we should be asking primarily about what kind of alcohol is consumed by people addicted to it, who often get involved in other pathologies as well. We might as well start by crossing all exclusive liquors from that list, and in Poland that would include cognacs, rums, whiskey – unless it’s Jack Daniel’s – wine (we’re talking about the real thing and not some cheap local glorified grape juice), and all other imported liquors, as well as some better beers and high-class vodkas. None of the aforementioned liquors will be found in the hands of the average inebriated gentleman passing time in some alleyway and they’re rarely consumed by partying teenagers or the more “uncouth” youths (we should take notice that among the bottles and cans left behind on lawns or in parks – a testament of the utter lack of culture and environmental sensibilities of the consumers, both of which are commonly associated with sections of society we consider prone to alcohol-related pathologies – rarely do we find evidence of consumption of something more classy than the average mass-produced beer or cheap vodka).

I am aware, of course, that alcoholism isn’t necessarily an affliction plaguing solely the underprivileged. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the entire discussion is based on the assumption that we’re trying to make it hard for the rich to stock their cocktail cabinets. The problem with restricting liquor sales lies primarily in the resultant decrease of the state’s profits, and people responsible for controlling the national budget should therefore be happy with the permanently high demand for these highly taxed products.

Bottom shelf beers, small vodka bottles, and so-called “Polish wines” (low-quality alcohol, often distilled in uncertain circumstances from unknown sources) are the greater problem.

A person that has lost control over their actions and drinks to get through the day undeniably values quantity over quality. But we can’t just reduce this complex issue to the question of availability. Selling liquor in stores deliberately located in places fairly hard to access that offer products at maximum possible costs – as in the Norwegian model that was referenced during the aforementioned radio interview – does not solve anything. Such an approach would surely spawn a shocking number of home-grown distilleries, an entire new alcohol industry sequestered from the inquisitive eyes of the tax authorities. That’s not eliminating problems – that’s simply creating new ones. The head of SAPARP claims that such a possibility is basically out of the question, given the fairly small extent of moonshining operations in modern-day Poland. As I already mentioned, I don’t expect the person heading SAPARP to be a visionary (in this case, being one would be considered grounds for dismissal), however, when people consider alcohol to be a commodity essential to their daily survival and the state decides to restrict its availability, rapid development of illegal moonshining quickly follows. That process has been observed multiple times. We’ve witnessed so many examples of alcoholism-prevention strategies based on restricting supply ending in failure that I don’t really think we need another similar initiative just to confirm the utopian nature of such an approach.

I will try to evaluate the situation from the point of view of a young, rational person. For me, alcohol consumption is limited purely to rest and recreation time, and I tend to pick the pricier brands (not because I’m filthy rich, but because the quality of the drink is more important to me than being drunk on whatever’s available). When I want to drink beer (I don’t really drink hard liquor), I like to take my time picking out a particular brand in a large supermarket-type store. When I don’t want to get too inebriated, I also check out the alcohol content of particular brands.

According to the head of SAPARP, when I attend a party with only a few bottles of beer, I can always – given the current laws – go out for more when the booze runs out and the party rages on. In this particular case, the proximity (or, when we consider the extreme variant, the existence) of a store might cause me to succumb to the temptation (which is even easier given my inebriated state) of consuming hard liquors until I finally end up with my head in the toilet.

In the words of the good soldier Schweik, this sermon lacks a repentant sinner. Unfortunately, the author of this piece will not volunteer for that part. It’s easy to imagine stocking up in that situation – we’re going to be packed to the gills with alcohol, so that we, God forbid, don’t run out. And if we already have this much booze with us, why let it go to waste… of course, this can be controlled by instituting a limit on daily purchases. That idea, however, is not only an affront to privacy but can be easily circumvented. As we had professional “stand-ins” to deal with shop queues when we were still behind the Iron Curtain, why shouldn’t some people decide to be a “professional” alcohol buyer? Come one, use your imagination!

In our quest for serious solutions to society’s problems, we can’t limit ourselves to examining just one factor. When the head of the household abuses family members, can we assume that things would be different without the involvement of alcohol? When a youth demolishes a bus stop, do we have any guarantees that alcohol stimulates his aggressive behavior? And how many people engage in pathologic activities while intoxicated?

Without a doubt, Poland’s problems lie primarily in the culture of alcohol consumption (or rather the passing of alcohol-related habits and behaviors from generation to generation) which we cannot simply disregard in the search for shortcuts. I don’t have any policy solutions at the ready, but I think that institutions like SAPARP should be tasked with developing and implementing such solutions – without resorting to half-measures. Policies based on philosophies straight out of the American Prohibition or those proffered by the ayatollahs in Iran have no chance of succeeding in our local realities. Fairy tales about the Norwegian alcohol-free paradise won’t do us any good either, especially given the fact that Norwegian laws (which I don’t think are in any way exemplary) were introduced by a country that was both highly efficient and highly statist. These laws haven’t eliminated either the black market or the desire to use other controlled substances. We shouldn’t think that it’s going to be much different in Poland only because we’re filled to the brim with good intentions.