Trouble With Alcoholics? Give Them a Beer

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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Talk about fighting fire with fire. In Amsterdam, a charity group is paying local alcoholics in be?r to clean up a public park. The men used to loiter in Oosterpark, located in a poor area where half the population is immigrant: Surinamese, Moroccan, Turkish. They drank, fought and made passes at women. Locals hated them.

Now residents smile at the cleaners wearing orange uniform jackets issued by the Rainbow Foundation. The former public nuisances start off the working day with two cans of beer each at 9 a.m. and walk out into the park and the adjoining streets with their garbage bags. They have another two beers at lunch and one more when they're done at 3:30 p.m. Apart from the beer, the day's wages amount to 10 euros ($13.69).

In typical Dutch fashion, this is a highly practical arrangement: With a can of beer costing as little as 40 U.S. cents, the men earn less than $20 per six-hour day if you count the hot meal they are served. This is far below the national minimum wage, $11.60 per hour.

Nobody complains. The beer is the alcoholics' fuel, and some of them even say they are drinking less because, for the first time in years, they have some structure to their day. Rainbow Foundation, which receives a lot of state funding but has to spend private funds on this project because the government can't be seen buying people beers, is fixing a neighborhood problem cheaply. The program can accommodate only 20 people working three days a week, and there is a waiting list.

Rainbow's approach may appear immoral to people accustomed to treating addiction with punishment. In the Netherlands, people see things differently.

Once a deeply religious, Calvinist country, Holland underwent a rapid secularization in the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1950 and 1975, it experienced the most rapid increase in alcohol consumption of all the nations reporting to the World Health Organization. It did not respond with punitive measures. The legal drinking age remains 16 for beer and wine, 18 for hard liquor.

Public policy focuses on raising awareness of addiction risks and treating addicts. The government treats 30,000 alcoholics annually through 11 state-funded regional organizations. In many ways, the Dutch approach to alcohol is similar to the prevailing attitude toward drugs: If the market exists, it should not be overregulated or criminalized, and its victims should get help, not a slap on the wrist.

In recent years conservative politicians have encroached somewhat on this liberal attitude, introducing a ban on foreigners buying marijuana in coffee shops and calling for an increase in the legal drinking age. The ban, however, is officially ignored in Amsterdam, and the parliament has resisted the tougher age limitations. That's because the current approach works, and there are no rational grounds for changing it.

According to the World Health Organization, the Netherlands ranks only 43rd in the world by per capita alcohol consumption, far behind most other EU nations. Its consumption level, 10.05 liters of pure alcohol per person per year, is close to that of the U.S., with 9.44 liters. The Netherlands ranks only 103rd in the world in alcohol-related mortality, accordingto data compiled by the website

Russia, by contrast, has the fourth highest alcohol consumption rate in the world despite ever-toughening restrictions on the sale of alcohol and a legal drinking age of 18. It ranks 35th in the world by alcohol-related deaths.

The Netherlands's record on hard drug use and drug-related deaths is similarly impressive. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reportsa drug mortality rate of 12.5 per million people for the Netherlands and 181.8 per million for the U.S.

To be sure, paying people with alcohol can be bad policy. In the Russian region of Mordovia in 2004, public employeeswere paid 10 percent of their salaries in vodka, not because they couldn't function without it but because it boosted the region's revenues from excise taxes on alcohol. People were getting what they did not need so the government could make more money. In Amsterdam, people are given what they crave so the government can save on public services.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at