Medvedev's Anti-Alcohol Campaign Tries to Make Russia Sober Up

A Russian border-patrol officer drinks vodka while lying in a fountain at a Moscow park. Alexey Sazonov / AFP / Getty Images

By Andrei Litvinov
(with Darya Guseva)

When it comes to lost causes, attempts to wean Russians off their booze would seem to rank at the very top. But that's precisely what President Dmitry Medvedev is trying to do. Last week he kicked off a new anti-alcohol campaign aimed at cutting the nation's per capita consumption of alcohol by nearly a quarter by 2012.

It's a quirky battle to fight, but the country does have an unequivocally serious predilection for the sauce. Russians currently drink about 18 liters (19 quarts) a year, more than double the 8 liters (8.4 quarts) deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). With each additional liter, adds the WHO, men can subtract 11 months from their average life expectancy. Women can subtract four months.

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The latest move to catch Russia's "green serpent" has a three-pronged strategy: a media campaign, restrictions on beer consumption, and strict penalties for selling to minors. Russian officials plan to set up more than 500 health centers by the end of the year, complete with Soviet-era tactics like drawings of cirrhosis-stricken livers on their walls. Outside the government, a grassroots organizing group called Our People plans to launch its own anti-vice campaign of online videos and flash mobs. It intends to send crowds out to gather around unsuspecting smokers on the street, walking alongside them and admonishing them to quit. It's still working out a strategy for scaring alcoholics. If its targets are already drunks, they will likely be harder to spook if they're in their cups.

Even with such aggressive measures, it's hardly the most ambitious campaign Russians has ever launched against drinking. Former leader Mikhail Gorbachev got alcohol sales to decline by 60 percent (although, it should be noted, that drop was partly offset by an off-the-books boom in moonshine and cologne). The official numbers revealed an impressive bottom line. In the second half of the 1980s, Russian officials say, the policies saved more than 1 million lives. Still, that achievement came with its own costs: the government had no qualms about hacking up vineyards, for example. At the same time, the suddenly scarce alcohol supply often led to long lines of exasperated customers prone to brawling.

Other more recent attempts have merely been brushed off. Three years ago, a group of young Russians organized a sort of vigilante vice squad to single out and shame merchants who sold alcohol to minors. Supported by the Moscow city administration, the Solar Circle movement, as they called themselves, held rallies, picketed, and slapped leaflets on the shop doors of guilty establishments. They piqued media interest at first, but the momentum soon fizzled. Likewise, Russians have not grumbled that a ban on drinking beer in the street, imposed back in 2005, has gone essentially unenforced.

Does this new push stand a chance? Some critics say that, while admirable, it hardly addresses the biggest culprit of all: vodka. "The main problem is the availability of hard liquor," says Aleksandr Nemtsov, a top Russian expert on alcohol policy at the Moscow Psychiatric Research Institute. Some 70 percent of alcohol consumption in Russia is of the hard stuff, primarily vodka. And no one has any bright ideas on how to wean Russia off its most celebrated commodity.

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One attempt, tried in the mid-1990s, substituted beer as a less intoxicating non-liquor alternative. The more people drank beer, thought officials, the less they would drink vodka. Instead, "beer has become a gateway opening the way to alcoholism for teenagers," says Oleg Zykov, a member of the Public Chamber, a government advisory body made up of public representatives. The earlier people start down that route, the more likely they are to end up hitting the hard stuff on a regular basis and grappling with alcoholism problems later. People drink just as much of their precious vodka as ever.

If the new movement achieves anything, it might simply be to undo that damage. Now the state is attempting to limit the beer boom, considering a measure that would increase excise taxes on beer almost threefold in 2010. The hope, advocates say, is that people will drink less beer if the cheap varieties go up in price from 20 rubles (63 U.S. cents) to 25 to 28 rubles (79 to 88 cents). Critics like Vadim Drobiz, head of the Center for Research in the Federal and Regional Liquor Markets, aren't so confident. Raising prices is futile, he says, because alternative products will immediately flood the market.

So, too, will bootleg products. The major distilleries have a big stake in black-market alcohol, according to Pavel Shapkin, head of the Center for Development of a National Alcohol Policy. Shapkin says there is currently enough production capacity in Russia to put out three times more vodka than the amount bought and sold in the formal market. Why? The secret is simple: excise taxes on vodka go to the regional governments, which are incentivized to produce alcohol. Often, he says, plants operate openly during one shift, then transition into producing illegal vodka on the next.

Still, for now, Russians seem to support the government's new approach. As the NationalCenter for the Study of Public Opinion reported last week, 65 percent of the population say they are in favor the new measures─especially those that restrict alcohol sales to those under 21. (Right now, the drinking age is 18.) That may not be enough to change the addicts' drinking patterns, but it could be enough to stop younger Russians heading down the same drunken path.

Darya Guseva contributed to this article, originally published in NEWSWEEK's Russian-language partner, Russky Newsweek. It was translated by Steven Shabad.

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