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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Is One in Five Iranian Drinkers an Alcoholic?

3 Substance


A Tehran bartender gets a draft. Photo via

Yesterday in Iran a medical toxicologist let the stat out of the bag when he announced that despite its laws against making, selling or drinking alcohol, the Islamic theocracy has “more than 1 million drinkers.” The news got global pickup, but the researcher, Reza Afshari, wasn’t exactly revealing a state secret as he was speaking at Iran’s first-ever conference on alcohol use.

Details of Afshari’s year-long study were not available. But all emphasis in the news should likely be placed on how many more than 1 million—at least if other official Iranian statistics are to be believed.

The government has previously said that some 200,000 Iranians have alcoholism. If that is true, and if “1 million” Iranians drink, then one in five drinkers is an alcoholic—an exorbitant rate that even Russians would have a hard time achieving. 

Iran has a population of 75 million. A study by IWSR, a London-based market-research firm, estimated that Iran had the third-highest per-person annual consumption of alcohol (1.02) of Muslim-majority nations, after Lebanon and Turkey, where alcohol is legal. Some estimates say that as many as 5% of Muslims in these nations are drinkers.

Taken together, all these stats suggest that Iran may have as many as 3.25 million drinkers.

One thing is certain: Nightlife in Iran has dipped since 1979, when the Islamic revolution swept in a regime of party-pooper ayatollahs. John Barleycorn wasn’t killed, however—he just went underground and behind closed doors. Wineries and breweries have sprung up in bathtubs and sinks, especially those of the urban middle class. Tehran boasts a black market in Western brands of booze, but only the affluent can afford it.

The government has taken steps in recent years to begin to acknowledge and even address problem drinking. Last September, for instance, it was announced that the country plans to open its first state-backed alcohol rehab in Tehran. Yet prohibition and punishment continue to rain down as illustrated by the much-publicized 2012 story of two Iranians who were sentenced to death after being caught drinking for the third time.

In this context, Reza Afshari’s vague “more than 1 million” may be seen as a step in the right direction—but not more than one step.