Thu, Nov 05, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Russia ponders how to give up the Vodka bottle

Around 500,000 Russians die every year thanks to alcohol, and the average life span for men is 60. Reforms need to be drastic


It was late on a Monday afternoon at the drunk tank in this Moscow suburb, but it could have been any day, at any hour, at any similar facility across this land.

People would come. They always do.

Such is Russia’s ruinous penchant for the bottle — and the challenge facing a new government policy to curb it.

First to be escorted in by police officers was a construction worker named Damir Askerkhanov, who said he had been bingeing on vodka and beer — “This is my very own holiday!” — before he was found stumbling about in the cold.

At 23, he admitted that he had already been picked up intoxicated twice recently. “Only even drunker,” he said.

Sergey Yurovsky, 36, who is studying to be a government clerk, arrived next, mumbling and getting tangled up in his sweater when he was asked to take it off for a brief medical exam. After he was moved to a room to sober up, and dozed off, officers showed up with Larisa Lobachyova, 53, whose hair was matted with dirt from a fall.

“It is this way all the time,” said Inspector Igor Poludnitsyn, who has supervised the drunk tank for seven years. “It is our national calamity.”

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has been voicing that sentiment a lot lately, declaring that the government must do something about the country’s status as a world leader in alcohol consumption.

The Kremlin has already vanquished one vice this year, casino gambling, which it all but banned in July. But drinking — vodka in particular — is another thing entirely. It is a mainstay of Russian life, both a beloved social lubricant and a ready means for escaping everyday hardship.

Medvedev is seeking steeper penalties on the sale of alcohol to minors, as well as a crackdown on beer, which has grown more popular among young people. Beer sales at kiosks would be banned, as would large beer containers. The government may seek more control over the market for vodka, still the most common alcoholic beverage.

Medvedev’s plan, though, follows a long line of failed temperance campaigns here, going back centuries. The most notable was pressed by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who in the mid-1980s ordered shelves emptied of vodka and historic vineyards razed. Those measures succeeded at first, resulting in a nationwide bout of temperance that even increased life expectancy.

But they also touched off a severe public backlash that damaged the standing of Gorbachev and the Communist Party, and he eventually relented.

In recent years, as Russia has rebounded and engaged more with the world, alcohol has hindered its development. Foreign companies that operate here are particularly aware of the toll as they grapple with lower productivity.

Russians consume roughly 18 liters of pure alcohol a person annually, more than double the level that the World Health Organization considers a health threat. The consumption figure for the US is about 8.7 liters.

The country will have difficulty resolving its demographic crisis — its population is predicted to drop nearly 20 percent by 2050 — if it does not confront its alcohol problem. Life expectancy for Russian men is now 60 years, in part because of alcoholism.

Researchers studying mortality in three industrial cities in Siberia in the 1990s found that in several years, alcohol was the cause of more than half of all deaths of people aged 15 to 54, often from accidents, violence or alcohol poisoning, according to a report this year in The Lancet, a London-based medical professional journal.

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