President Dmitri Medvedev appears determined to tear a page from the playbook of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies led to the collapse of the USSR, by attempting to force Russians to cut back on their catastrophically high consumption of vodka.
Experts say the problem has grown so dire that the Kremlin has little alternative but to attempt a crack down, even though history records that Mr. Gorbachev’s efforts to deprive Russians of their vodka led to an explosion of public outrage – at a moment when he needed to mobilize public support to back his perestroika reforms.
Rampaging alcoholism is a “national disaster,” Mr. Medvedev said in a recent statement. “The alcohol consumption we have is colossal. … I have been astonished to find that we drink more now than we did in the 1990’s, even though those were very tough times,” he said.
According to the Kremlin website, annual per capita pure alcohol consumption in Russia is about 5 gallons, which is twice the level the World Health Organization describes as the “danger level.” According to a recent study in The Lancet, a medical journal, half of all Russian deaths between the ages of 15 and 54 can be attributed to alcohol-related causes.
Overwhelming the system
According to Russia’s State Service for Consumer Protection, that translated into 75,000 premature deaths in 2007 alone.
“In our society, drinking has become the norm from top to bottom,” says Alexei Magalif, head doctor of the Magalif Clinic in Moscow, which specializes in substance abuse disorders. “Everyone drinks. No one drinks in moderation; they drink to get drunk, and it’s overwhelming the medical system,” he says.
Economic crisis has dampened the public mood and led to over 10 percent unemployment, a sure-fire recipe for increased drinking, say experts.
But wary of Mr. Gorbachev’s fate – polls show he’s still one of the most unpopular public figures in Russia – Medvedev is proceeding much more cautiously than the last Soviet Communist Party chief, who in 1985 simply ordered liquor shops shut down, distilleries closed and vineyards torn up.
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.
“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.”
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