RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been reporting this week on the challenges facing one of the world's most remote countries: Mongolia. And one stumbling block to progress there, both economic and social, is alcohol abuse. One study found that alcohol is a problem for 22 percent of Mongolian men. NPR's Louisa Lim begins her report where some have bottomed out.
LOUISA LIM: It's a quiet night in this police station in Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator. It's midnight, and there were only 14 people in the sobering-up cells. This is the front line in the battle against alcohol, where people are brought to stop them from freezing to death in the winter and from doing harm to others.
The station's senior policeman, who gives his name as Davkharbayar, says the level of alcohol abuse has worsened drastically since Mongolia began democratic reforms in 1990. He blames economic liberalization.
Mr. DAVKHARBAYAR (Policeman): (Through translator) Unemployment and poverty are the main reasons people drink. In the early '90s, the manufacturing plants closed down, the unemployment rate became critical and the drinking really started.
LIM: So now we're in the cellars of the local police station. These are the police lockups, the sobering-up cells. The cells are windowless cells with just wooden pallets on the floor, and the men are brought down here. Their clothes are taken away from them to stop them from committing suicide, and they're given blankets. And there's four men huddled together on the pallets in this cell.
(Soundbite of door closing)
LIM: Surveys indicate that 72 percent of violent crime is driven by alcohol. Police officer Davkharbayar says these guys are all repeat offenders.
Mr. DAVKHARBAYAR: (Through translator) These 14 calls came from homes complaining. It's all domestic violence. These men are our regular customers.
(Soundbite of dogs barking)
LIM: After dark, dogs bark in the Ger district of Ulan Bator, where many people live in traditional circular tents. Unconscious bodies lie by the roadside, ignored. Drunks stumble past, held up by staggering friends. Small groups huddle around roadside fires, drinking themselves into oblivion. This is desperation writ large.
One reason for the high level of alcoholism here is the sheer availability of alcohol. Mongolia has one shop that sells alcohol for every 270 people. That's the highest number anywhere in world. And in this supermarket, for example, I'm standing in right here, I've just counted 25 different types of vodka. So the choice on offer is incredible. (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: (Foreign language spoken) So this shop assistant has just told me that for about a half a pint of vodka, it costs just $2. So alcohol here is also incredibly cheap. Yet despite that, it's very big business for the government. That's according to Sean Armstrong, who's been doing research on alcoholism in Mongolia.
Mr. SEAN ARMSTRONG (Researcher): Currently, roughly 20 to 23 percent of the annual government's income comes from taxes directly related to alcohol use and sale.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Many vodka brands appeal to national pride. This advert is for Chinggis Vodka, named after Genghis Khan. And drinking does play a core part in Mongolian culture. But Sean Armstrong says alcohol was also used by both the Chinese and the Russians as a tool for colonizing Mongolia.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Most Mongolians will tell you that in their opinion, the Russians were quite smart, 'cause as they say, first they brought vodka, and then they brought communism. And they said, after vodka, anything would have seemed like a good idea.
LIM: So we're now visiting the state narcology center, and this is where people come voluntarily to go on detox programs. It's the only state-run center in Mongolia, yet they only have 50 beds for inpatients. So they can really only treat about 1,800 people a year. It's far less than needed.
Ms. BASHDONIAN KIMGAY(ph) (Human Resources Manager, Mongolian State Narcology Center): (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: The human resources manager, Bashdonian Kimgay, says patients only stay for 10 days. They get medication for the first five, she says. And some attend lectures.
Ms. KIMGAY: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: In the television room, we meet a small, tense man who doesn't want to give his name. He's a train driver who's been here a week. He came because he got scared about what he might do.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) I drank too much, then I couldn't go to work. My only fear was that by being drunk, I could cause deaths, since I'm responsible for so many people. It was a huge problem.
LIM: He admits had it not been for this place, he wouldn't have known where to turn for help.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) I would probably have looked for an alternative method through shamanism and piercing the tongue and that sort of thing. People say that's not very reliable, though.
(Soundbite of music)
TATAR (Pop Group): (Rapping in foreign language)
LIM: Sardonic song from a popular band Tatar, parodying Mongolia's drinking culture. All the women in the music video have their front teeth missing, a clear reference to the high level of alcohol-fueled domestic violence. The earth is spinning a bit too fast, the lyrics say. Have one more. The alcohol is evaporating.
Mongolia is struggling to deal with this epidemic of alcoholism. If left untackled, it could become a national emergency.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Ulan Bator.
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