Iranian police dump confiscated beer cans in Tehran on July 22, 2009. The possession, production and consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden in the Islamic Republic and police often raid smugglers and illegal parties. TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/FARZIN NEMATI (Photo credit should read FARZIN NEMATI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iranian government is stepping up its attempts to tackle alcoholism, a senior Health Ministry official told the Iranian Students' News Agency on Monday, with more than 150 outpatient alcohol treatment centers slated for opening in the near future, six of which will also have facilities for inpatient detoxification.

For a country with more than 77 million inhabitants, it may seem a relatively modest move. It's more remarkable, however, when you consider that alcohol has been banned in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In fact, drinking alcohol is classified as a crime against God in the country, punishable with lashings (allowances are made for non-Muslim citizens, who can make but not sell their own beverages). Repeat offenders can even – in theory, if not so much in practice – face the death penalty.

As anyone with any knowledge of the Prohibition-era United States will tell you, however, a ban on alcohol doesn't mean no one is drinking it: people are willing to go to some extraordinary lengths to get a drink. And in Iran, where alcohol was long a part of the culture and where evidence has been found of winemaking in the region dating as far back as 5400 B.C., the habit has proven hard to leave behind.

In much of Iran, alcohol is available with relative ease on the black market, either produced at home (such as Aragh Sagi, usually brewed from raisins) or smuggled in from Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan in what is believed to be a multimillion-dollar business. Drinking tends to take place at private residences, at inconspicuous gatherings or alone. “You don’t even need to leave the house,” one computer engineer told Reuters last year. “Nasser, the brewer, will deliver it to your door.”

In part due to its illicit nature, alcohol consumption in Iran isn't always healthy. Homemade alcohol carries with it health risks including blindness and even death, and authorities have complained about the levels of drunk driving in Iranian cities.

There are also signs that while alcohol consumption may be relatively rare among most of the population, those who drink alcohol seem to drink a lot of it: 2014 statistics from the World Health Organization suggest that while total alcohol consumption per adult is estimated to be low in Iran (less than 1 liter each per year), among those who drink it is estimated to be around 25 liters per person a year, a higher number than many European nations.

In recent years, the Iranian government has slowly admitted that alcohol is easily obtained within Iran, with warnings from officials about rising rates of alcoholism. "Personal reasons are the most important factors which lead to the spread of alcohol consumption in society,” Deputy Health Minister Alireza Mesdaghinia said in 2012. “Some think this is a way [to cope] with their frustrations."

In 2014, Iran even held a conference on alcoholism, during which Reza Afshari, president of the Asia Pacific Association of Medical Toxicology, presented research that showed more than 1 million Iranians broke the law to drink alcohol. The Iranian government's own figures suggest around 200,000 people may be alcoholics – though the figure could well be far higher. The country's first center for alcoholics was opened a couple of years ago.

Exactly what lies behind the Iranian drive to drink is hard to say, but it certainly appears that some young Iranians see it as an escape from their daily lives and the restrictions placed upon them. And while alcohol may be seen as a scourge by the Iranian government, it may be a lesser evil compared to harder drugs. Iran's Drug Control Headquarters estimates that 3 million people in Iran are addicts, even though drug trafficking is punishable by death.

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