The Guardian (Russia) – Moscow bans overnight sales of vodka in Dmitry Medvedev’s war on alcohol

  • Post category:World News

Ivan the Terrible ramped up its production, Mikhail Gorbachev banned it and Boris Yeltsin wandered the streets of Washington in his underpants after consuming too much of it.

Now President Dmitry Medvedev has become the latest leader to step on to the floor in Russia’s eternal and deadly dance with vodka.

City authorities in Moscow have announced a ban on the sale of spirits between 10pm and 10am, in the most recent of a series of measures designed to break the country’s drinking habit.

The average Russian drinks a litre and a half of pure alcohol every month, a habit that kills half a million people a year and is a major factor in population decline. An estimated 51% of production is on the black market, with factories running illegal night shifts and huge supplies of moonshine called samogon distilled in villages, where it acts as a second currency.

Medvedev announced a war on alcohol last summer saying he was shocked by the “colossal” level of consumption. He ordered the government to draw up measures to discourage excessive drinking and cut off supplies of bootleg liquor.

Russia has since increased excise on beer, raised the minimum price of a bottle of vodka to 89 roubles ( £1.87) and announced plans to cut sales at kiosks. Legal changes to make it a criminal rather than an administrative offence to sell alcohol to minors are also in the pipeline and last month police began enforcing a zero drink-drive limit.

Shops and other outlets in Moscow had been banned from selling alcohol over 15% in strength between 11pm and 8am but a legal loophole allowed them to acquire permission for 24-hour sales from district authorities. Establishments serving food are not affected.

“We can only welcome this law,” said Yevgeny Bryun, the ministry of health’s chief specialist on alcohol and drug addiction.

Bryun admitted that hardened drinkers could still down vodka during the day and “catch up” late at night by purchasing beer, “but overall the alcohol burden will be lower”.

Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied alcohol trends in Russia, said: “It will depend on enforcement but this is a good thing.

“The experience of the Nordic countries shows us that any measure which makes it difficult to access alcohol has a positive effect.”

However, he added: “What is most effective is higher excise taxes and limiting the number of outlets selling alcohol.”

Alcohol was prohibited in the Russian empire between 1914 and 1917 but reintroduced by the Bolsheviks when they realised its earning power. In the 1980s Gorbachev also banned booze, tearing up huge vineyards in Crimea and other southern climes of the Soviet Union. Mortality rates dropped as a result but there was a spurt in use of dangerous “surrogate” alcohols such as aftershave, boot polish and window cleaner.

Vodka – both legal and illegal – remains the chief killer in Russia, where it accounts for up to 70% of consumption, despite the rising popularity of beer and mixed drinks such as gin and tonic in cans.

Alkashi – alcoholics – are still a common sight on Moscow streets. A collection of wild-eyed and grubby men sprawled at one notorious hangout outside the entrance to Belorusskaya railway station is a common sight.

“Vodka’s got more expensive so sometimes we chip in to share a bottle,” said one of the group, echoing a practice in Soviet times, when three men would contribute a rouble each to buy half a litre.

Andrey Demin, a public health expert who drew up a recent report on alcohol abuse, said future measures would face stiff opposition in parliament. “The alcohol lobby and foreign producers in Russia are so strong and ruthless,” he said.

Demin said higher prices, tougher legislation and stricter control on production and distribution were the only solutions. “Otherwise this extermination by alcohol will continue.”


Source: The Guardian (Russia), 18/08/10