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A 'national disaster'

November 24, 2009

In the land famous for its vodka, President Medvedev is swimming against the current. He has ordered swift controls and passed laws aimed at curbing alcoholism, something many see as virtually impossible.

Russians drinking at the Kiev train station in Moscow
Will Russians be drinking vodka in public for long?Image: AP

In response to growing alcohol consumption in Russia and figures released by the World Health Organization, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has launched a campaign against alcoholism in his country, aimed at controlling the sale, advertising, and production of alcohol.

In addition, several working groups are in the process of drafting laws to restrict drinking among Russian youth, such as raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

New studies suggest that the average Russian consumes some 18 liters (4.75 gallons) of pure alcohol per year. This is double the amount the World Health Organization considers harmful to one's health.

Russia has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world, and experts say this is a main reason for the relatively low life expectancy of Russians, especially Russian men. At present, a typical Russian man lives to the age of 57, which is three years lower than the retirement age.

No more beer!
Studies show Russia is not an ideal place for prohibitionImage: picture-alliance / dpa / DW Montage

Sergei Mikheyev of the Center for Political Technologies, Moscow think tank, said it was high time for the government to take steps to combat alcoholism.

"In comparison to Soviet times, the number of alcohol addicts has doubled, in some areas even tripled," he told Deutsche Welle. "This has had disastrous effects: The number of crimes and traffic accidents due to alcohol influence has increased. Now, in 60 percent of all accidents an intoxicated person is involved. Alcohol is a serious threat for Russia; [Medvedev] has to intervene from above with new laws."


Medvedev has referred to alcoholism as a "Russian tragedy" and as a "national disaster" and has promised to change the situation with reforms.

This is not the first time a Russian leader has used his authority to combat alcoholism. In 1985, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev launched an ambitious anti-alcoholism campaign aimed at restricting the sale of alcohol and changing the public perception of drinking, which is deeply rooted in Russian culture.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
Some say Gorbachev's campaign pushed the sale of alcohol to the black marketImage: AP

Part of the initiative included the implementation of anti-alcohol advertizing, which included the now iconic posters of a well-dressed Russian man refusing a glass of vodka with the word "Nyet!", Russian for "No!".

The campaign had little practical effect. On the contrary, in addition to undermining Gorbachev's popularity in Soviet Russia, many say his anti-alcohol drive led to the creation of illegal distilleries, something President Medvedev is now seeking to stamp out.

Russian officials say 30-50 percent of the country's vodka market is illegal and untaxed. Medvedev is looking to initiate a state vodka monopoly, which would bring order to the market and make it easier to control.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Medvedev is up against Russian traditionImage: AP

Medvedev's pipe dream?

Though political expert Sergei Mikheyev says reforms of the alcohol industry and restrictive laws are helpful, he believes the crux of the issue lies in Russians' low awareness and traditional acceptance of alcohol - which he blames above all on the alcohol company advertising.

"To use beer as an example, many people don't even consider it to be alcohol," he said. "They don't think drinking beer can turn you into an alcoholic. As a result of aggressive beer advertising, the people believe that you can drink beer like water."

Other experts, meanwhile, like Vadim Drobis from the alcohol research institute "Ziffra," which is financed by the alcohol industry, say Medvedev's wish to curb drinking in Russia is a forlorn hope.

Drobis says Medvedev should instead try to get Russians to drink alcohol that is "better" for them.

"The central point of any campaign to combat alcoholism here should be to get people to switch to drinking alcohol that is high in quality and not as potent. It is almost impossible to make Russians quit drinking," Drobis said.

Author: Mareike Aden (glb/AFP/Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson