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Ukraine: The Statistics Sound Good, But Don't Toast Sobriety Just Yet

Ukraine's health minister says the country has the lowest alcohol-consumption levels in Europe. The figures show the average Ukrainian drinking the equivalent of just over 2 liters of pure alcohol a year -- far less than drinkers in Western Europe. If that's the case, why are more and more people in Ukraine dying of alcohol-related illnesses?

Prague, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In wine there is truth, goes the old saying. But don't look for truth in statistics about wine -- or beer or vodka, for that matter.

Ukraine's Health Minister Vitalii Moskalenko said last week that Ukraine has the lowest consumption of alcohol in Europe, with the average person drinking the equivalent of just over 2 liters of pure alcohol every year.

World Health Organization statistics presented at a conference last year appear to back this up. They portray Ukrainians as models of sobriety, compared with, say, Luxembourgers, who down 13.3 liters a year.

One reader of a Russian news website commented on the figures by saying: "I'm off to Luxembourg tomorrow. They'll probably all be drunk."

Of course, these figures tell only a small part of the story.

Evgenii Stukalenko is an alcohol and drug expert advising the Ukrainian Health Ministry. He says the official statistics only take into account sales by certain retail outlets: "Consumption figures are two times lower than production in almost all these categories and I don't think the other half is export. Probably export is much lower. Sales are only recorded through enterprises, that means sales via legal entities. But alcohol is also sold also by individuals, and this isn't registered anywhere and that's why you get such a low consumption figure."

Experts say to get a better view, you have to include unrecorded consumption, which by its nature is hard to measure.

The WHO says this unrecorded level for Ukraine is around 11.5 liters per year -- the highest estimate they have for anywhere in Europe except for Latvia (14.2) and Macedonia (14.5).

That, combined with the official consumption level, places Ukrainians among Europe's hardest drinkers -- although still secondary to drinking giants like Russia (with a combined total of 15.4 liters), Macedonia (18), Lithuania (18.5), Slovenia (19.2), Hungary (19.5), and Latvia (21.3).

Unrecorded consumption -- which also includes bootleg and home-brewed liquor -- is typically high in many newly independent states, says Dag Rekve, a senior advisor at the Norwegian Ministry of Social Affairs who has conducted surveys into young people's drinking behavior throughout Europe. He says the unrecorded estimates come from various sources: "There are different tools to try and figure out the unrecorded consumption. One thing is population surveys or samples. Another thing is police figures and cross-border trading figures."

But one of the best indicators is the incidence of alcohol-related illnesses and deaths from alcohol poisoning, liver cirrhosis, and other diseases. This according to Konstantin Krasovskiy, the head of Kyiv's Independent Sobriety Association and a campaigner for tougher legislation on alcohol and tobacco advertising: "Liver cirrhosis usually has a one-year time lag. So if we have high alcohol consumption this year, we will have high liver cirrhosis mortality next year -- and this is exactly the case for Ukraine."

His figures show alcohol-related deaths are growing after a three-year dip in the mid-1990s and now top 12,000 a year.

"At the end of 1995, the government started to control the alcohol market. Before, most of our alcohol producers didn't pay taxes because they managed to find some holes in legislation. Since the end of 1995, the real price of vodka increased very much and all indicators of alcohol-related mortality decreased. In 1998, we had the financial crisis and the government decreased tax rates, so the real price of vodka [decreased] and we have negative trends in alcohol-related mortality in the last two years."

Stukalenko adds that, increasingly, younger drinkers are also swelling the ranks. But what could lower the incidence of drink-related disease and cut consumption? Stukalenko says restrictions on sales could be one way, though he adds that this is "not very likely" due to what he says is the wide-ranging influence of the alcohol lobby.

"Dry laws don't solve anything and no country has ever achieved anything by introducing dry laws. It's really about restricting the number of sales outlets, the times alcohol can be sold and definitely to observe the minimum-age limit when selling alcohol. These are the only effective methods -- not on their own, but together with a range of preventative measures for teens."

Teetotaler Krasovskiy bemoans the fact that a ban on tobacco and alcohol advertising -- passed late last year by parliament -- hasn't kicked in yet because of a presidential veto.

Krasovskiy says his sobriety association has only a few hundred members, though he notes this is fairly typical of nongovernmental organizations in Ukraine.

But he is cautiously optimistic. He says he has noticed a trend among some ambitious young people who are abstaining from alcohol because, they tell him, "we need to be sober to get a good job."