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Going to Battle Against Soviet Alcoholism

December 22, 1987|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

No one can accuse J. W. Canty III of having modest goals. All the Episcopal priest wants to accomplish, he says, is "world peace through world health."

The tall, slender clergyman from New York had counseled alcoholics for 10 years when he heard in June, 1985, that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev had launched a major campaign in the Soviet Union against alcoholism.

Canty had always wanted to bring people together, and he decided to raise his sights to the international level. A joint U.S.-Soviet campaign against alcoholism, he reasoned, could begin to bring nations together.

The priest, who lives alone in New York City, began working to create such a campaign by writing to Gorbachev, President Reagan, their wives and other high-ranking officials. After extensive correspondence, he made a two-month visit to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1986 and founded the Soviet-U.S. Joint Conference on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.

A Fruitful Visit

In Los Angeles last week to recount his experiences, Canty enumerated the fruits of that first visit. Soviet officials, Canty said, accepted the conference as a permanent organization, chaired by Canty, with offices in New York and Moscow. They also allowed the distribution of Alcoholics Anonymous literature translated into Russian. Four months ago the first AA chapter for Soviet citizens, "Moscow Beginners," formed in Moscow.

Canty, 41, has since made seven more visits to the Soviet Union to study alcoholism there. He is encouraged, he says, by the existence of concrete steps that can be taken to solve the problem. "In AIDS, as in other problems, we don't seem to have a solution. In alcoholism, we do. Recovery is possible and there are steps you can take to achieve that."

During all his travels he encourages his co-workers to tell drinkers to "Just Say Nyet," a take off-on the American campaign organized by First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Since he is unaffiliated with a specific Episcopal congregation, the unmarried cleric does most of his work in the one-room Manhattan apartment where he lives without a microwave oven, a color television or a car. He often works 16 hours a day on the conference.

To make time, Canty curtailed his work on another exotic job. In previous years he sailed throughout the world 10 months a year as a ship's chaplain. This year he reduced his shipboard work to six months.

Canty was anxious to start the cooperative drive against alcoholism because he was aware that the Soviets believed they had an acute problem. An example of that awareness, he said, came last year when the Soviet interior minister stated that there were 4.5 million registered alcoholics among that nation's 283 million people.

Alcoholism Blamed

Soviet studies blame alcoholism for a soaring divorce rate, high levels of absenteeism from work and a dramatic decline in male life expectancy, which has dropped in the last two decades from 67 to 62 years in the Soviet Union while rising in most industrialized nations.

Thus in his recent policy initiative, Gorbachev raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, reduced the number of liquor stores, allowed stores and restaurants to sell liquor only between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and cut back the production of alcohol.

As part of the spirit of glasnost , the Soviets also sent four physicians to New York last summer to study alcoholism in America. Canty escorted them to parks, where drunks passed out on benches, to a trendy night club and a major league baseball game, where they observed other American drinking habits, and to a variety of AA meetings.

Finally he took the doctors to a house in Beaver Creek, Colo., where they sat on the floor with former First Lady Betty Ford as she discussed her battle against drugs and alcohol.

"The thing they were most impressed with on the trip was AA and the use of people to help people recover," Canty said. "They thought the concept was extremely usable in the Soviet Union."

Favorable reports from the Soviet doctors and continuing cooperation with the Joint Conference have moved Soviet officials to label AA a beneficial program, Canty said. This, in turn, has made it easier to distribute AA literature translated into Russian even though the literature makes direct reference to God.

"We are seeing it (the distribution of the literature) unfold at a much more cautious pace than in other parts of the world," Canty said, but he added that the literature is being disseminated.

The Joint Conference has been trying to spread information about alcoholism through other means as well.

Canty has proposed that the Bolshoi Ballet create a ballet showing the road to alcoholism and the rewards of recovery and he has invited Elizabeth Taylor to visit the Soviet Union to talk to a small group of drama students about her addiction and recovery. The discussion would be filmed for Soviet television.

The Soviets have also agreed to show a movie in which Carol Burnett plays a recovering alcoholic who opens a halfway house for female alcoholics.

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