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Russia revisits a long battle with alcohol

Russia revisits a long battle with alcohol

 

Combating alchohol abuse has always been something of a non-starter in Russian politics. This is, after all, a country whose former president was once found by the Secret Servce thoroughly sauced outside the White House, wearing nothing but his underwear trying to hail a cab so he could get a pizza.

But current President Dmitry Medvedev is trying to change things with a proposal to ban outdoor beer sales in his country, a first step in getting Muscovites to lay off alcohol. He also wants to limit the hours of the day alcohol can be sold.

This week, a bill was submitted to lawmakers that would triple the tax on beer from 3 rubles per liter to 10 rubles per liter by 2012. Wine and spirits would also see a sharp increase.

State prosecutors are also moving to ban liquor sales in airports. Under Russian law, no beverage with alcohol content above 15 percent can be sold in crowded or dangerous places, and prosecutors say this means airports.

Russians drink five gallons of pure ethanol a year, double what is considered dangerous by the WHO. And on average, 30,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning in the country. Over half of the deaths of the 15 to 54-year-old demographic between 1990 and 2001 are attributed to alcohol.

“I have been astonished to find out that we now drink more than we did in the 1990s, although those were very tough times,” Medvedev said.

He is a fan of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol reforms in the 1980s aimed at curbing consumption, even though he acknowledges that the plan had major flaws. Gorbachev destroyed the majority of vineyards and wineries in Georgia, probably the birthplace of wine (This didn’t help the growing anti-Russia sentiment in the Southern Caucasus at the time). He also shut down distilleries and breweries. Most notably, the Soviet Union suffered tremendous sugar shortages, because people turned to moon shining. (The Russian word for ‘shine is Samogon) Stores also ran out of window cleaner and aftershave. It is estimated that 13,000-25,000 people died from drinking ill-made moonshine.

Medvedev’s plan is much more cautious but many Russians are still wary.

“It’s impossible. He doesn’t stand a chance,” a Russian construction worker told The Los Angeles Times.”The Russian man will always be drinking. Russians don’t surrender.”

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images