Sugar is running out in the Soviet Union. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda Wednesday reported rationing in some parts of the country and sugar lines 500 people strong outside shops. Sugar sales are up 10 percent over those of last year, and reserves have been exhausted.
The sugar crisis points to a much more serious problem: a crisis in the country's anti-alcohol campaign.
Until recently, the campaign introduced in May 1985 was hailed as one of the great victories of the present Soviet leadership. Now social commentators are beginning to voice the concern that it is nowhere near as successful as people once believed.
The government has lost billions in liquor sales, but claims to have benefited substantially from improved efficiency in the work place, less absenteeism, and fewer demands on the health-care service.
Alcoholism is now officially described as one of the causes of the significant increase in infant mortality and the two-year drop in the Soviet male's average life expectancy during the '70s.
There are, however, growing fears that the cutback in vodka sales and the six-hour wait outside state liquor stores have led to an even worse evil: home brews of sometimes fatal strength or composition. The effect of these - made of anything from lubricating fluid to aftershave - is more devastating than vodka.
The sugar is being snapped up by bootleggers who, Komsomolskaya Pravda says, are willing and able to pay the equivalent of more than a month's average salary for a sack of sugar.
Punitive measures against the home brewers are not working, Komsomolskaya Pravda says. Police crackdowns do not solve the underlying cause of home brewing: long lines outside liquor stores.
Academics and political commentators now seem to be toying with one of two approaches to the alcohol problem: either a complete dry law, or abandoning the whole idea.
In the latest issue of the journal Novy Mir, the influential economist Nikolai Shmelyov comments that the current anti-alcohol campaign has been successful in only two respects: cleaning up drunkenness in the workplace and in the streets. But the administrative measures used to enforce the campaign have not been able to get to the heart of the matter:``What to buy instead of vodka [and] where to go in your free time,'' he said.
Mr. Shmelyov suggests making liquor once again freely available, perhaps even at a lower price. In this way the state will at least force the bootleggers out of business, close the secret drinking dens, and stop people poisoning themselves with chemicals, he writes.
The argument is based on a view held by many reformers - that the alcohol crisis of the '70s was largely a response to the profound malaise afflicting Soviet society under former leader Leonid Brezhnev.