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6/3/13

In Spite of Alarming Alcohol Consumption Statistics the World Will Survive

[EUGEN BĂICAN, PH.D., early 50s, sits at his desk. At times he paces about the room. He wears a tie, a gray suit, and a chunky, hand-knit wool vest.]

Yes, airplanes are a problem. I’m lobbying with the Cluj Parliamentary Representative to move the flight path, so they fly over villages, not over towns. Often times I have to stop my lectures. Some of them fly so low, that I can’t speak until the noise passes.
Can you hear me? Very well.
I’m lecturer Eugen Băican, Ph. D.. I’m a sociologist. 14 years ago I introduced at the Babeș-Bolyai University courses in therapy and recovery from addiction, including alcoholism.
I understand you expect to find some spectacular differences between the alcohol consumption and dependency in Romania during the communist period, and after.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the social patterns of alcohol consumption and dependency are essentially socio-cultural and not ideological. They depend more on long-term history than on cultural conjuncture. Therefore, from this perspective, the essence of the high alcohol consumption and dependency in Romania are the same before and after 1989. The difference between the two periods is the changed cultural acceptance of drinking habits.
There are large differences between cultures, between civilizations.
Allow me to give you two examples: in France the socially accepted way of alcohol consumption is that wine is recommended at lunch and dinner. Alcohol, specifically wine, is ingested at the same time with food. But things are different in Eastern Europe. Alcohol consumption happens often before eating. For example in the working class environment, especially before 1989, nowadays too, though to a lesser extent, because there are fewer factories. After the worker’s shift ended, before going home to eat, he’d stop with his coworkers at a pub for drinks, “Let’s have a glass!”—or how they used to say, “Let’s have un pahar de vorbă/a glass of words.” Well, of course that one glass turned into many more, and even if it didn’t, the effects of alcohol consumption on an empty stomach are considerably different then while eating.
Also, we could ask, “Why do people drink alcohol?” or “When do people drink alcohol?” Do they drink when in sorrow, when they are upset, when they are under stress? When they experience a great frustration? Or do they drink when joyful, to celebrate?
Well, people drink at weddings, baptisms and funerals. They drink in joy, and in sorrow. Alcohol is a constant ingredient of everyday social life.
Alcohol consumption is a socially acceptable coping mechanism. It’s the way people adjust to everyday life pressures, its difficulties, frustrations, or intense joys.
Now, a common stereotype is that Romanians, Hungarians, or Russians, people from ex-communist countries, are the top alcohol consumers in the world. This is mistaken. I speak from the perspective of specialized scientific research: alcohol consumption in terms of quantity is highest in France.
The question is how come that the popular conception doesn’t match the scientific reality? Because, on one hand, the traditional way of using alcohol socially has direct consequences. As I said, in France, though a considerably larger quantity of alcohol is drunk per capita than in the Eastern European countries, the effects on health are somehow diminished, due to the fact that alcohol is ingested with food.
On the other hand, in the Western countries for several decades now there have been, and still are, social phenomena much more spectacular than alcohol consumption. Whereas in our countries, until recently, there was no drug consumption, no social criminality, so consumption and dependency of alcohol were more visible.
Another fundamental observation: sociological research conducted on this topic tells us that chemical dependency in general, alcohol specifically, is more present in the lower and upper class than in the middle class. Our middle class is significantly smaller than in Western countries. Our middle class is about 8% of the Romanian population, upper class 1%, and the rest are the lower class. Extreme polarization. Actually quite similar to the USA situation. Soon both countries won’t have any middle class.
Well, also from sociological research, it’s well-known that during times of crisis alcohol consumption and dependency grows. The social transition we went through after the fall of Communism in 1989 was such a crisis period.
There is another thing that distinguishes us from the West: here both preventive services and treatment for recovery from addictions, alcoholism in particular, are still underdeveloped. Their development is slower than we’d like it to be, particularly as I’d like it to be as a specialist in the field.
This is caused by a historical legacy, since the communist ideology didn’t acknowledge it as a social problem.
What alcoholism is it’s still debated. Is alcoholism a vice? A character defect? A sin? Is it an illness?
Depending on the response, the approach to the problem through public policies is different. If it’s a disease, then you start creating services of prevention, therapy and rehabilitation. If it’s a character vice, then those that have this problem have the personal responsibility to recover from it.
Evidently the latter is an absolutely inefficient and non-pragmatic approach.
Another thing: after 1990 there was a dramatic growth of abusive alcohol consumption in two population categories: youth and women. The youth data showed this increase was about 350%, and in women 300%, compared to 1990.
Where does this absolutely dramatic growth of alcoholism rate originate from, especially in women? Everything has an explanation based on socio-cultural changes. Until 1990, alcoholism in women was extremely stigmatized socially. Then women abused alcohol too, but furtively, in secrecy.
Apropos of secrecy, I recall as a college student, in the ’80s, there was a famous restaurant named Intim, across from the Matei Corvin House. It was exclusively for women. We, male students, wanted badly to go to that restaurant. “Only women! And they get drunk on top of it! It would be so interesting to get in there!” But they didn’t let us in.
Well, end of parenthesis…
Picking up again, from after 1990: under a dramatic relaxation of social norms, under the dissolution and partial reconstruction of our value system, alcoholism in women started to be, if not de-stigmatized, at least perceived with much more tolerance.
How are things today? In the European countries, the frequency of abusive alcohol consumption and dependency is 6-10% of the population. Well, we don’t have very reliable research in Romania, but the corroborated data that I follow allows us to believe it’s around 7.5% of population. We’re in the middle ground of Europe, neither on the top, nor at the bottom.
The data is valid for countries of all Western culture, even the U.S.A..
The situation is significantly different in the countries of Islam, Eastern Asia, Africa. Well, Islamic society has, of course, a restrictive attitude regarding alcohol consumption. It’s not missing, but it’s forbidden.
What’s important here is that all serious research shows that nowadays we’re dealing with an extraordinarily amount and variety of addictive behaviors, at civilization level. In no other moment in history did we have such an array of addictive behaviors. We have to recognize that the large variety of drugs available now, namely drugs of synthesis or semi-synthesis didn’t exist a hundred, or a thousand years ago.
But then again, nowadays the scientific, social, medical, psychological knowledge and its practical applications are more advanced.
The pathological dependency on gambling, sex, or sex and love addiction, addictive eating behaviors, anorexia, bulimia, a multitude of behaviors that didn’t exist before with such social frequency nowadays are encompassing our entire civilization.
We’re at an exceptional moment.
Of course there were other moments in history like this, but of shorter duration. For example the opium war in China was very dramatic. European colonizers conducted an immense commerce with the indigenous population, an immense business that yielded a lot of money.
The business side is one of the defining dimensions of consumption and dependency on alcohol and drugs in general. The more consumers and dependents you have, the more you sell.
The fundamental explanation is again the array of socio-cultural values that define the civilization in which we live. Someone said that the contemporary man lives in a world in which the entire socio-cultural scaffolding claims that the source of satisfaction, the source of happiness, is outside rather than inside ourselves. This is what Eric Fromm called the Paradigm of Owning, as opposed to the Paradigm of Being. The being of interiority, of personal subjectivity. So then, since joy, pleasure, satisfaction, happiness is quite hard to find outside ourselves, addictive behaviors seem to be the solution.
Well, if this problem is universal, then what is happening with our civilization? Will we auto-destruct? No. The world won’t disappear because of the way it’s confronted at present with alcohol consumption and dependence, nor with addictions in general.
Alcohol was consumed from the very start of mankind. Some natural drugs, like cannabis, or crude opium, documented by archeological research, had been consumed by various populations about 6-7,000 years ago. So it’s nothing new.
Each civilization, though, finds its own modality of cohabitation with alcohol or other drugs. And that’s where the difference lies. There are modalities that entail smaller damage, and there are modalities that entail heavier damage.
Regarding Cluj, and Romania overall, the fundamental observation is: the preventive and rehabilitation services are still underdeveloped.

Thank you.

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