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Source: DW

Jul 30, 2023

Alcohol in Iran: The deadly cost of prohibition

With its ban on alcohol, Iran is treading a path that the United States tried and later abandoned as a failure. Is it worth the cost?

BY Niloofar Gholami

New York City, Christmas 1926: More than 80 people died after drinking poisonous alcohol. It was the height of prohibition, the nationwide alcohol ban that had begun in 1920 in the United States. 

Beyond the ban, the federal government had taken the extreme measure of adding high amounts of methanol to alcohol in the hopes that people would taste it and be put off.

But drinkers were not discouraged, and thousands died as a result, according to author Deborah Blum in her 2010 book "The Poisoner's Handbook." Reports indicate that at least 10,000 people died due to the nationwide ban. 

Thousands died of alcohol poisoning during the US prohibition era - Image: akg-images/picture alliance

Ultimately, prohibition was a failure, and it was repealed in 1933.

Iran has been trying something similar since 1979, and it too, has gone badly.

Iran strictly prohibited alcohol consumption, with severe consequences ranging from flogging and fines to potential imprisonment after the 1979 Islamic revolution. But that didn't stop people from drinking. Like in the United States, the ban led to the creation of underground networks to brew alcohol and a mafia that some experts believe has deep ties to the government itself. 

"Sometimes drinking is our only reason for happiness and a small chance to have fun," 25-year-old Mahsa* told DW. Even so, after at least 300 people were hospitalized and 40 died due to alcohol poisoning in recent weeks, she quit. "I think they succeeded in scaring us to stop drinking alcohol."

Alcohol poisonings on the rise

Observers say the ban is clearly not working.

"Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen an increase of about 20-30% annually in the number of people who were poisoned or developed [adverse] side effects from drinking methyl alcohol," Mohammad Kazem Attari, a US-based Iranian physician and researcher, told DW.

"As alcohol poisoning was very widespread in the cities at the same time, there is doubt that it was intentional, or rather a mistake by a local producer who added impurities to drinks during production," Attari said, comparing it to the recent wave of suspected deliberate mass poisonings of Iranian school girls.

Iran has banned drinking alcohol since 1979

Dangers of alcohol brewed underground

"I always heard about poisonings and death by methanol, but I really never believed it could happen to me," said 27-year-old Erfan*. 

Usually, Erfan only drank booze that he bought from a dealer he had gotten to know through friends. But at a party one evening he had a methanol-laced drink. When he lost his eyesight and felt other frightening symptoms, his friends rushed him to a medical center. 

Alcohol can affect vision, digestion and brain function and cause permanent disabilities, or be fatal.

Erfan was lucky: His loss of sight was only temporary. 

"I had a phobia for a long time, but now I try to be more careful," he said. "My father and I even started to make our own wine."

Turkey: Compromise on tradition and modernity

Other Muslim-majority countries are more flexible when it comes to the sale of regulated alcohol. In Turkey, for example, adults can easily buy alcohol legally.

During the holy month of Ramadan, it is common to see people sitting in bars enjoying their preferred alcoholic beverages.

Raki, the national drink, is an integral part of Turkish culture. Despite the ease of access, Turks only drink one and a half liters of alcohol per person per year on average. 

Turkey is still quite liberal when it comes to drinking alcohol

"Turkey is not a prohibitionist but a libertarian when it comes to alcohol. However, there are also lines that the sociological structure weaves independently of the laws," Turkish sociologist Yusuf Arslan told DW.

While liquor shops in some provinces keep their workplaces closed during Ramadan and Kandil holy nights, there are no closures in other provinces. This de facto situation is determined not by laws but by the sociological structure," he said. 

At the same time, alcohol prices in Turkey remain consistently high compared to several EU countries. The cost, which includes hefty taxes, as well as the poor economic situation have led to the growth of underground alcohol production.

As in Iran, that can be deadly: Every year around 100 people lose their lives from alcohol poisoning.

But a ban on alcohol has not been a subject of discussion in Turkey, even under the conservative administrations, Arslan said. 

He compared regulations on bars, drinking in public and when alcohol can be sold as well as the ban on liquor advertising to measures in Europe. They were issued in the interest of public health, rather than with the logic of prohibition. "Similar regulations were applied in the Netherlands and France with similar concerns," he said. 

Many people in Iran can only dream of an end to prohibition and look back on the situation four decades ago.

"I hope that someday soon we can live a normal life without fear or unnecessary risks, just like the rest of the world," a young Iranian woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told DW.

*names changed for security reasons.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

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