Russia vows to take on vodka consumption
Alcoholism is a "national disaster," President Dmitry Medvedev said in a recent statement. But past efforts to curb abuse of vodka in Russia have proven politically unpopular.
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While Gorbachev's anti-alcohol drive may have contributed to his political downfall, public health experts look back on it more kindly than historians because, they say, it briefly succeeded in its primary mission: to wean Russians off the bottle.Skip to next paragraph
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"For a short period, Gorbachev's effort was quite successful in lowering alcohol consumption and increasing life expectancy," says Murray Feshbach a demographer with the Wilson Center in Washington, who specializes in the former Soviet Union.
"Gorbachev's campaign saved over a million lives," agrees Alexander Nemtsov, an expert with the official Institute of Psychiatry in Moscow. "Its defect was its lack of preparation and bureaucratic character. What's needed is a more gradual and systematic effort."
Mr. Medvedev has given Prime Minister Vladimir Putin three months to regulate Russia's out-of-control market for alcoholic drinks, including stiff criminal penalties for those who sell it to minors, tight restrictions on where liquor can be sold, big health warnings on all containers and tough new regulations for advertisers.
Experts say that more than 70 percent of Russian alcohol consumption comes in the form of hard liquor, especially vodka. Hopes that commercial promotion of new, lighter alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine would displace vodka have been dashed by evidence that Russians consume the new drinks in addition to their usual doses of vodka.
To deal with the problem, the Kremlin may be planning to reinstate the old state monopoly on production, instituted 300 years ago by Peter the Great but abandoned following the USSR's demise in favor of an open market.
"Up to 60 percent of vodka consumed in Russia is produced illegally," Gennady Onishenko, head of the State Consumer Protection Service, told the independent Interfax agency this week. "Restoring the state monopoly on alcohol," would end counterfeit liquor production and enable the government to implement tougher regulations, he said.
But critics say that more draconian steps will be required if the Kremlin hopes to tackle Russia's age old curse.
"Our surveys show that 85 percent of Russians want urgent measures to limit alcohol consumption, and half – mostly women – support a dry law," says Kirill Danishevsky, co-chair of "Control Alcohol", a public pressure group. "The alcohol business lobby has made enormous efforts to weaken strict measures," he says. "Medvedev made a good start, but much more needs to be done."