By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Mass alcohol poisoning and related deaths have exposed an alcohol problem in the Islamic republic, where a ban introduced following the 1979 revolution has failed to prevent Iranians from drinking. Ninety-two people were poisoned, four fatally, after drinking in Sirjan in the southern province of Kerman, Iranian media reported on July 23.
Details relating to the poisonings, including whether they are related, were unclear, but Kerman Province judiciary official Yadollah Movahed told ISNA news agency that authorities are working to identify and arrest those behind the distribution of the alcohol.
He said that "48 people are hospitalized, three of them are in critical condition, and 30 of them are undergoing dialysis."
He added that, "due to the sensitivity of the case and the damage to society's psychological peace," the case investigation will be expedited.
Drinking alcohol is forbidden in Iran and punishable by flogging and fines.
Repeated offenders can face the death penalty.
Yet, many Iranians do drink. They either buy smuggled foreign alcoholic beverages that tend to be very expensive, or they drink cheap domestic hooch -- usually made from raisins -- called araq sagi. Christians are exempted from the ban, and are allowed to possess alcohol for personal use.
cartoon by Mehdi Azizi
In recent years, official warnings about the spread of alcohol consumption and alcoholism have increased.
There's been also increased media reports about deaths from homemade alcohol. In 2013, for example, seven people died in the southern city of Rafsanjan and dozens were hospitalized after drinking homemade alcohol.
Last September, Mohsen Roshanpajooh, a deputy on drug use and prevention at the state Welfare Organization, was quoted by the Iranian news site Fararu.com that his organization had found that alcohol consumption in Iran was higher than expected.
"Due to Islamic and legal considerations, the rate of alcohol consumption was
expected to be lower, but alcohol use is higher in the country than our
expectations," he said, without offering specific data.
In 2014, Iranian media reported that the country's first center for the treatment of alcoholics had been opened in the capital, Tehran.
The head of Iran's health ministry department focusing on drug use, Alireza Norouzi, later said that the ministry planned to set up 150 centers for outpatient alcohol rehabilitation. RFE/RL was unable to independently determine if the plans had been realized.
Iran's police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam said in 2013 that an estimated 200,000 Iranians were alcoholics, according to Mehr news.
Due to the official stigma, the real number of alcoholics could be higher.
Deputy Health Minister Ali Akbar Sayari was quoted by RFE/RL's Radio Farda as saying in 2015 that every year 420 million liters of alcohol are consumed in Iran.
Prosecutor Abbas Ali Jafari said last year that over the course of 10 months, 300,000 bottles of foreign alcohol and about 200,000 liters of locally distilled alcohol had been seized in Tehran.
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