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Analysis & Opinion
23.09.09 Medvedev’s Sober Thoughts
By Svetlana Kononova

President Dmitry Medvedev has launched the first anti-alcohol campaign in Russia since Mikhail Gorbachev’s time. The president’s official Web site, Kremlin.ru, has published a list of measures aimed at decreasing alcohol consumption in Russia, meant to help counter the threat of a national disaster posed by growing alcoholism in the country. Nowadays, this campaign has become one of the most controversial topics under debate in the Russian society.

Official statistics show that heavy drinking is one of the main reasons behind Russia’s population decline. Data from a UN report published in April shows that heart disease and violent deaths mostly caused by heavy drinking, accompanied by smoking and an unhealthy lifestyle, might cause Russia’s population to fall from the present 142 million to 131 million by 2025.

Russians have the reputation of the world’s heaviest drinkers, consuming 18 liters of alcohol annually per person (including newborns and the elderly), which is twice the safe maximum established by the World Health Organization. Thus the average male life expectancy is just 60 years, and 30,000 people die from alcohol poisoning each year.

Having labeled heavy drinking as a “national tragedy,” Medvedev proposed a list of measures meant to decrease alcohol consumption in Russia. Most of them are aimed at alcohol consumption by teenagers. The measures include enforcing strict criminal penalties for those who sell alcohol to minors under 18, and a ban on the sale of alcohol near schools, healthcare facilities and sports centers. Additionally, alcohol purchase should be restricted for those under 21 years of age. Moreover, the president’s program requires that the volume of alcoholic spirits and cocktail cans be restricted to 330 milliliters. Each can should bear a health warning message covering at least 20 percent of the surface.

Alcoholic drinks will be available at supermarkets, caf?s and restaurants only. Thousands of small streets kiosks will be banned from selling fortified beer and other hard liquor. The most controversial of the proposals is to set a minimum price for vodka and to discuss the possibility of a governmental monopoly on alcohol production.

Data from the All Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) shows that 65 percent of Russians support Medvedev’s new anti-alcohol initiative. Sixty-three percent of those polled like the idea of banning alcohol sales to people under 21; 57 percent want to ban all alcohol advertising. Women are more active in this campaign than men: 71 percent of its supporters are female, compared to 57 percent who are male.

At the same time, the Russian blogosphere is much less optimistic. “They [the Russian government] do not understand that alcohol is the only thing that helps them hold on to power,” wrote a blogger who goes by the nickname of svartroner. “Even if sober Russians will not grow wiser, a revolt would be very possible.”

Many bloggers have compared this new initiative to Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign of the 1980s, which cost the last Soviet leader his popularity. Back then, a lot of vineyards were destroyed in Crimea, Moldova and in Southern Russia, and thousands of people died from poisoning after consuming low quality drinks and bootlegged liquor.
The most heated discussion is now focusing on whether these new anti-alcohol proposals will be effective.

Employees of the Anonymous Alcoholics in Russia NGO, who work with heavy drinkers and help thousands of alcohol-addicted people to recover and lead a normal life, remain skeptical of the new campaign. “Only a package of anti-alcohol measures might have a positive effect,” said the director of the NGO’s Russian office Vladimir Obolin. “It is necessary to refer to the international experience and achievements in solving the alcohol problem. We need special rehabilitation centers for alcoholics,” he added.

The Head of the medical programs department at the «Say NO to Alcohol and Drugs» foundation Sergey Poljatykin agreed, adding that the new anti-alcohol campaign proposals seem too na?ve in the context of contemporary life and social problems in Russia. “Even if the sale of alcohol is restricted, teenagers will find ways to buy it,” he said. “A can of beer costs less than a can of coca-cola or a cup of coffee. This is absolutely abnormal.” Poljatykin believes that fines for alcohol consumption in public places (including on the streets) should be increased, and alcohol advertising should be limited to places that sell alcohol. “Teenagers tend to mimic adult behavior. As soon as heavy drinking is no longer the social norm, the situation will start improving,” he said.

Surprisingly, large alcohol manufacturers are prepared to support the new anti-alcohol measures. The spokesman for the “Alkogolnye zavodi Gross” company Vasily Dmitriev views Medvedev’s proposals as a means of balancing out alcohol production. “Experts believe that up to 30 to 50 percent of alcohol sold on the Russian market is illegal,” he said. “If the government were to set the minimum price for vodka, it would benefit the legal manufacturers who pay taxes. If vodka produced by large and famous manufacturers costs the same as vodka coming from the gray market, consumers will probably choose the former.”

According to Dmitriev, about 300 legal alcohol manufacturers operate in Russia today. If consumers stop buying illegal alcohol, the number of cases of alcohol poisoning would decrease dramatically. But Dmitriev does not believe that the idea of a governmental monopoly on alcohol might be implemented sometime soon. In his opinion, the implementation of this project will be too difficult and too expensive.
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