Official sources in Iran say 200,000 people are dependent on alcohol. This figure is likely to be higher, however, because the rulers of the Islamic Republic are reluctant to admit the existence of social ills.
"Very often my friends have to be treated for alcohol consumption in hospital," 20-year-old Anoush said. He lives in the capital Tehran and knows many illegal alcohol "dealers."
Alcohol is banned in Iran. Getting caught with it three times can even carry the death penalty. To the young people in the totalitarian religious state, this may not matter. Alcohol is nothing unusual to them. "Laws are there to be broken," Anoush said. At private parties, teenagers drink themselves into a coma to forget their worries and fears, at least for a short time.
Escaping the mullahs
Iran has a young population. The average age is 27. But the country is isolated. The international community suspects Tehran is secretly seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies this and insists it wants to use nuclear power only for civilian purposes, although its plants are closed to international inspectors. The UN Security Council has therefore imposed several rounds of sanctions against Iran.
This has affected the young people in the country. High unemployment, lack of opportunities, rising prices - to escape these problems, young people consume alcohol, lots of alcohol. "Alcoholic drinks are only one of many sedatives," said Mostafa Eghlima, chairman of the Iranian Social Workers' Association. His countrymen live in a society in which people "are subjected to constant economic pressure and social grievances," he said. "They are seeking refuge in alcohol to ease their pain."
Iran's Deputy Health Minister Alireza Mesdaghinia regards alcohol consumption as a "means the people use to deal with their frustration." But this causes them to risk their own health.
The dangers of bathtub booze
Due to the current economic predicament, many people cannot afford original products in Iran. A bottle of vodka from Russia costs more than 100 euros on the black market. Iranians therefore distill liquor themselves, which is more affordable, but they often take dangerous shortcuts or adulterate the product. Many drinkers are not aware of the risk. "A large number of alcoholic drinks are mixtures of ethanol and methanol," coroner Arash Okazi told DW. Ethanol is drinking alcohol. But methanol is toxic and can cause blindness and even lead to death.
A report by the Iranian Organization for Forensic Medicine said 93 people died as a result of alcohol poisoning in 2011. In 2010, the figure was even higher, with 145 dead.
These figures have caused concern in the Iranian Ministry of Health in the capital. Officially, it has said there was "a worrying development in terms of the increase in alcohol consumption in Tehran and other parts of the country." Moreover, the problem "should be considered more serious than diabetes and cardiovascular disease."
Incompetent and corrupt authorities
According to official figures, there are some 200,000 alcohol-dependent people; in 2008 it was the same number. But it is believed that the real number of people who have lost control over their drinking habits is higher. The Ministry of Health also criticized the unreliable figures. "Since the consumption of alcohol is prohibited from a religious perspective, some of those responsible in the state apparatus are attempting to cover up the facts," a religious, conservative website said. The police chief of Tehran, Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam sees it that way. He said the increase in alcohol consumption was an "undeniable fact."
But the Islamic Republic does not have a special plan to fight addiction. The state takes strict action against alcohol smuggling, but this is apparently not effective enough. An estimated 80 million liters of spirits are smuggled into Iran annually, mainly from Iraq's Kurdish region. If this estimate is correct, this means the Iranian police are able to interdict only 25 percent of traffic. Iranian MP Eghbal Mohammadi accuses his country's authorities - and in some cases, government officials and members of the notorious Revolutionary Guards - of accepting bribes to look the other way in the illegal importation of spirits.
But even if the black market were successfully closed, the reasons people drink would not go away. "If there is no liquor on the market, many people will fall back on harder drugs," Anoush from Tehran said. He and his young friends don't see much of a future for themselves anyway.