As Alcohol Fuels a Suicide Epidemic...Health Workers Start to Fight Back

The Ljubljana cop lays down his beer tankard, wipes the foam from his mouth, and adopts the avuncular yet insistent air of a pub landlord at closing time: "Come along, gentlemen, you'd best be getting home. Your good ladies will be worried."

It's 6 o'clock on the Thursday morning after the night before in the Slovenian capital, and Sergeant Andrej Sorf is rousing a group of snoring drunks from the city's main railroad station before the first trains of the day start moving. All in all, it's a standard picture of urban despair. Except that this collection of human jetsam contains several specimens of an altogether better-heeled class of lush. "Visitors are surprised to find some of our derelicts so well-dressed," jokes Borut Pogacnik, a doctor from a local detox clinic, flicking a thumb toward a gaggle of suited business types sprawled across the waiting room benches like tycoons snoozing on an ocean liner. "Dressed to kill, you say, no?"

HEAD-SCRATCHER. In this case, though, that's not just a figure of speech. Not only does this atypically prosperous corner of the Balkans, always the richest of the former Yugoslav republics, boast some of the world's biggest boozers--consuming, for example, around 160 liters of beer annually for every man, woman, and child. It also suffers the region's highest suicide rate, and close to 50% of those deaths are alcohol-related. "We have some 30 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants--that's 20% more than in 1990, and two-thirds more than the West European average," mourns sociologist Matiaz Hanzek. "You could say we are Central Europe's suicide central."

That has some saloon sages here scratching their heads, for Slovenia seems to have less cause than most to be drowning its sorrows. Ten years ago, the cocky little nation of 2 million announced its secession and, after a brief but bloody scrap, sent the Belgrade war machine in search of easier pickings. Since then, it has risen to the top of the post-communist crop, invariably outstripping its former East bloc neighbors' economic stats. In 1999, for instance, GDP per capita amounted to 73% of the European Union average, far above Poland's 42%. Now, with EU membership likely in three to five years, the Slovenes look to be heading for anywhere but Skid Row.

Yet the privatization and reconstruction of state-owned industry have left a certain kind of Slovene punch-drunk--and ready to take a permanent dive. "The most likely to kill himself is a man 40 to 50 who has either been laid off or has a younger guy after his job," reports Onja Tekavcic Grad, coordinator of a new health-awareness campaign aimed at reversing the trend. "His escape is the bottle." Followed, in order of preference, by the gun, rope, or poison. "As a people, we are aggressive and careless of our safety. We drive like maniacs and fight hard when attacked, as the Serbs found out," muses Jozica Selb, an adviser to the Health Ministry. "But when there's no enemy, we turn that aggression inward."

Maybe so. But for the volatile Slovenes, dowsing their problems in liquor is like fighting a forest fire with paraffin. And as Pogacnik concedes, his compatriots have a historical weakness for the hard stuff that well predates independence. Even their national anthem, The Toast, celebrates the joys of tying one on. "Everyone seems to want to live fast and die young," he remarks, observing rowdy homeward-bound teen clubbers jostling their hungover elders in the ticket queue. "And if they can't die young, then middle-aged will do just fine."

Although medical professionals have praised the current health drive, which encourages alcoholics to acknowledge their condition and seek remedial help, they are eager to prevent a fresh generation from bellying up to the bar.

Now they are lobbying for government cash to fund workshops that would teach parents, teachers, and youth workers to recognize the warning signs early. "It does appear we all have some kind of self-destruct gene," concedes health adviser Grad. "But the social habit that activates this dormant tendency begins early. So we might as well start now." Slovenia's advertising regulations are already the toughest in Europe and are especially protective of children. But watchdogs point out that EU membership will bring more liberal rules. So the question is: Will faster economic growth offset the lure of the bottle?

By James Drake in Ljubljana

Edited by Harry Maurer

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