Kremlin calls time on drinking problem

Widespread alcoholism in Russia is prompting officials to consider imposing temperance within the country.

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MOSCOW // It was only 10am on a recent weekday but the haggard 40-something did not mince words about what he wanted as he staggered toward a line of people at an ATM outside a metro station in northern Moscow. "Dear friends, please give me 10 roubles [Dh1]," he implored, clutching a white plastic cup to his chest. "I need a drink. I'm dry as dirt." Unfazed by the silence, averted eyes and eventual verbal reproaches of those in the queue, the man persisted in begging for liquor money, at times becoming belligerent.

A middle-aged woman finally relented, handing him a 10-rouble note just to get rid of him."There, go get your drink," the woman said, turning her attention back towards the ATM as the man stumbled off to the nearest shop. Such scenes of alcohol-related degradation are common in Russia, where alcoholism remains rampant despite officials' efforts to keep citizens from reaching for the bottle. The Kremlin, however, is making a renewed case for temperance in the land of vodka, with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, calling alcoholism a "national catastrophe".

Despite a series of government measures in recent years - including tightened regulations of alcohol production and advertising, as well as stricter drink driving laws - "one cannot say there have been any significant changes in the situation", Mr Medvedev told officials in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday, at a discussion devoted to addressing alcoholism in the country. "To be completely honest, alcoholism in our country has become a national catastrophe," Mr Medvedev said.

Alcohol consumption in Russia has shot up in recent years to levels unseen since the chaotic years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2007, Russians drank, on average, 9.8 litres of alcohol, up from eight litres in 2000, according to the latest available data from the Russian State Statistics Service. Citing even higher figures from the Russian Health and Social Development Ministry, Mr Medvedev told officials that, per capita, Russians consume 18 litres of pure alcohol annually, a statistic that includes largely non-drinking demographics, such as children, meaning the number is probably to be even higher for the average adult.

"You can count for yourself how many bottles of vodka that amounts to," Mr Medvedev said. "It boggles the mind." Russians on average drink more than twice the amount of alcohol annually that the World Health Organisation considers dangerous, the Russian president added. Russian health authorities have counted about 2.5 million alcoholics in the country, while the British medical journal The Lancet reported in June that alcohol played a role in more than half of all deaths of Russians aged 15 to 54 in the past decade.

Both Mr Medvedev and his predecessor, the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, have taken pains to promote a healthy lifestyle among their countrymen, only occasionally being shown to be publicly consuming alcohol and demonstrating a fondness for sport. Mr Medvedev's comments on Wednesday were the latest in a series of public statements expressing shock at Russians' alcohol excesses, including praise for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's prohibition in the mid-1980s, a campaign that sparked a flood of black market moonshine of extremely dubious quality.

Vadim Drobiz, an alcohol industry analyst and the head of the Moscow-based Russian Federal and Regional Centre for Alcohol Market Research, said the figures cited by Mr Medvedev were slightly higher than those in reality, and that the increase in alcohol consumption in recent years could be attributed to the increasing popularity of beer. "The difference between Russia and other countries is that elsewhere beer becomes popular at the expense of other kinds of alcohol, including hard alcohol," Mr Drobiz said. "In Russia, people simply drink beer in addition to other alcoholic beverages.

The Russian health and social development minister, Tatyana Golikova, told Wednesday's discussion that a new government anti-alcohol campaign should be hammered out by the end of the year and echoed Mr Medvedev's praise of Mr Gorbachev's prohibition. "Whatever you say about [Gorbachev's] anti-alcohol campaign, whatever organisational mistakes were made, the campaign of the 1980s led to a serious reduction in mortality and, in five years, the lives of one million people were saved," Ms Golikova said, the state-run Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The Russian finance ministry has pushed forward with a plan to almost treble an excise tax on beer, although it remains unclear when the tax would come into force. Brewers in Russia have called the plan misguided and said it would drive drinkers to cheaper, stronger alcohol, much of which is counterfeit. Mr Drobiz, of the Federal and Regional Centre for Alcohol Market Research said Russians certainly drink too much but that the government must first and foremost address poverty and other social issues that exacerbate the problem.

"Of course alcoholism must be combated but this should be done logically, not just by raising taxes on alcohol, for example," Mr Drobiz said. "People here drink out of despair because most of them live badly. We are not a nation of happy drinkers." The respected weekly news magazine Kommersant Vlast suggested recently that the Kremlin should be wary of carrying out aggressive temperance measures. The two previous governmentati-alcohol campaigns over the past century - in 1914 and 1985 - preceded by just a few years the fall of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, respectively.

The post-Soviet Russian state has survived, among other things, "the spectre of a [return to] communism", oligarch wars and "so far [its] absorbing the blow of the economic crisis," it wrote. "But as history shows," the magazine drolly noted, "it will hardly survive a lowered blood alcohol level of the simple Russian."