It's a warm September evening, school is out, and scores of kids hanging around Moscow's Tanganka Square have loaded up with pints of beer. They stand around in mixed groups of boys and girls, laughing, talking, and swigging.
"I don't drink beer to get drunk, just to relax," says Yevgeny Mirkin, who says he's 16. "It's just something to do with friends."
Scenes like this, routine on the streets of Russian cities, prompted the State Duma to unanimously pass a sweeping ban on TV beer advertising, except late at night, which came into effect this month. Some parliamentarians are also pressing for curbs on public beer drinking, which could be tacked onto sweeping security measures being prepared in the wake of a series of devastating terrorist attacks that killed almost 450 Russians in the past month.
Annual Russian beer consumption has doubled in the past five years, to about 113 pints per capita, with the biggest increases among young people, making this the fastest-growing market in the world after China. The sales boom has set pulses racing among global beer executives, who've invested heavily in Russian breweries. But it's triggered alarms among legislators and sociologists, who warn Russia already has 22,000 registered child alcoholics and drug addicts, and the trend is sharply on the rise.
"The situation is critical. We may lose an entire generation" to alcoholism, says Mikhail Grishankov, deputy head of the Duma's security committee.
Under Russian law, as well as in the popular culture, beer is nothing more than a thirst-quenching soft drink. Shops and kiosks require no special license to sell beer, and minors can often be spotted freely buying it.
The new rules prohibit any beer commercials on TV between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., or in publications whose themes deal with youth, health, or sports. Billboards are banned within 100 yards of a hospital, school, or athletic center. Starting in January, breweries will be further barred from using human, animal, or cartoon characters in their ads. That should effectively halt the parade of seminude women, stern military heroes, animated peasants, and frolicking bears who've been plugging beer on TV until now. Nor may ads offer any suggestion that consuming beer "will help achieve social, sporting or personal success, or will improve one's physical or mental condition," according to the new rules. Similar restrictions on hard liquor advertising, as well as a ban on open public consumption, have been in place since 1995.
Television networks, who stand to lose some 10 percent of their advertising revenue according to the Brewer's Union, a trade group, have protested the new law. Sports teams, still struggling since state funding collapsed with the Soviet Union, say the ban on beer ads in their stadiums could cripple them. Russia's ice hockey and soccer federations sent a joint letter to parliament last month asking it to rescind the rule.
Some experts insist that the rapid expansion of beer consumption justifies radical steps. "Alcohol abuse is steadily growing in Russia, and beer drinking among young people is the most troubling new phenomenon," says Natalia Vanisova, a researcher at the Institute of Narcology in Moscow. "There is no doubt that the flood of advertising has played a role in the alcoholization of life."
Some reports, promoted by the brewing companies, have implied that beer might be having a civilizing impact on the Russians by weaning them off their traditional tipple, vodka.
"We do not believe the claims [about rising alcoholism] are borne out by independent studies," says Alexei Kedrin, head of public relations at Baltika, one of Russia's leading breweries, based in St. Petersburg. He cites a Gallup poll that found about 30 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 55 gave up drinking hard liquor between 1997 and 2003. "Drinking patterns in Russia are shifting," he says. "People are choosing low-alcohol beverages, and that reduces the overall alcohol intake of the population."
But some statistics suggest otherwise. Russia's Health Ministry says the average Russian consumes 5 gallons of vodka annually and that the rate is not falling. Since bootleg liquor production remains a major factor, particularly in the Russian countryside, all official estimates are hazy and probably on the low side. One in seven Russians is thought by the ministry to be an alcoholic, 40,000 Russians die each year from extreme intoxication, and alcohol abuse is implicated in 70 percent of the country's approximately 300,000 annual accidental deaths.
While beer sales in Russia grew by 14 percent in the first half of this year, sales of hard liquor also rose, by 4.2 per cent, according to the state statistics committee. Since Russia's population has been shrinking by an estimated half million people per year, overall alcohol consumption would seem to be disastrously on the rise, observers note. By contrast, US consumption was flat last year for the first time in seven years, though observers attribute that, in part, to low-carbohydrate diets. Americans drink more beer than Russians - 172 pints per capita in 2003, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, an industry observer - but hard-alcohol consumption in the US is much lower.
Russia's vodka problem dates to Czar Ivan the Terrible who, in the 16th century, instituted a state vodka monopoly and banned sales of competing drinks like beer and honey mead in all the country's shops and taverns. The Russian state has heavily relied on vodka excise taxes ever since.
An attempt by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to ban vodka hastened the government's collapse by incurring popular wrath against him and nearly bankrupting the state. Mr. Gorbachev's disastrous experience is one reason Russian lawmakers remain reluctant to crack down on the distribution side, leaving the alcoholic-beverage market almost totally unregulated.
The end of the Soviet Union brought a deluge of new drinks to market. Russia now has more than 100 brands of beer. But some fear that all those new choices, boosted by sexy advertising, might have only encouraged traditionally hard-drinking Russians to drink more.
"You watch those commercials and get the impression that everyone here in Russia must be sick," says Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist parliamentarian, after voting for the advertising ban. "It looks like everyone here drinks beer day and night. It's not a country; it's a madhouse, really."