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17 Aug, 2009 10:48

ROAR: New anti-alcohol campaign in Russia

ROAR: New anti-alcohol campaign in Russia

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed measures to curb drinking in the country. “Alcoholism has reached the proportions of a national disaster,” he says.

At a recent meeting devoted to the problem, Medvedev said that past measures to reduce alcohol consumption “have not had any real effect.” At the same time he noted that the problem could not be “simply eradicated overnight.”

Medvedev urged the government to use the experience of other countries, “no matter what people say about it being too deep-rooted in our culture, about it being practically impossible to fight alcoholism in Russia.”

The president proposed several measures to address the problem, including introducing a series of restrictive and educational measures. The first task is to “stop the rise in alcohol consumption among young people,” he said.

The government may also change the regulations applying to the production and sale of beer and low-alcohol beverages. At the same time, Medvedev believes that “officially imposed prohibitions alone cannot resolve the problem.” He wants to take a new modern approach and “make use of all the possibilities the education system and mass media offer.”

The state program to decrease drinking in Russia will be developed by the end of 2009, Tatyana Golikova, Minister for Healthcare and Social Development, said. She replied in the positive when asked by Medvedev if Russians are “the absolute world champions in alcohol consumption.”

Golikova cited statistics saying that the consumption level in Russia is now 10 liters per capita of strong alcohol per annum. However experts believe the consumption is 18 liters per person, she added. “Between 1914 and 1917, the alcohol consumption level was 3.4 liters per capita, Golikova said. “This may have been the lowest alcohol consumption in all of Europe.”

Analysts believe that the success of a new anti-alcohol campaign will depend on measures that are being taken. Russians still remember the crackdown on drinking launched by then-President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. His attempt to reduce alcohol consumption “while oil prices were plummeting, sent the Soviet economy tumbling,” Agvan Mikaelyan, director general of the Finexpertiza consultancy, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

The number of people who drink will not decrease because of higher prices or the limited availability of alcohol, Mikaelyan said. “One should advertise the good and promote a healthy lifestyle rather than fight the evil,” he added.

If the government pursues the line to raise excise-duties on alcohol, this may harm the president’s approval rating, Mikaelyan believes. His thoughts were echoed by political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “It is not difficult to raise prices, he told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “But we should understand that drinking is a habit and a social reality. It cannot be just prohibited, it has to be redirected.”

The culture of drinking should be changed, and being sober should be a habit, Oreshkin said. The changes will take time, patience and effort – devoid of corruption, he added.

There is another side of the problem. One should take into account that the economic situation in the country is similar to that in 1980s, Oreshkin stressed. “Medvedev is in a difficult situation. I hope his advisers will calculate the shortfall in revenue that the anti-alcohol campaign may bring before taking any abrupt moves,” he said.

“Everything will depend on the practical measures of the campaign,” Sergey Mikheev, analyst with the Center of Political Technologies, told RT. “However, so far it is unclear what will they look like.”

“It is obvious that alcoholism has become a very serious problem,” he said. “And it is obvious that something should be done with it. The question is only what to do.”

“Medvedev says the right things, but we should see what steps will be taken,” Mikheev said. “People’s views and their way of life should be changed to solve this problem.”

It is often said that drinking is Russia’s tradition of many centuries, but Mikheev does not agree with this. “Statistics say it is not true, and alcoholism was not widespread before the October revolution in 1917,” he stressed.

“Hard drinking is a phenomenon of the later Soviet period, the 1980s,” Mikheev added. “It was a period of ideological decay, and then the mood of total depression continued in ’90s.”

At the moment of crisis the problem of alcoholism could be even more acute, Mikheev said. “But Medvedev is also searching for topics to promote himself, and the anti-alcoholic campaign could be one of them,” he added.

“The problem is not artificial, but the question is how the campaign will be conducted,” Mikheev said. “Now Medvedev, unlike Gorbachev, has no room to make mistakes,” he added.

Bad methods were used during Gorbachev’s campaign, with many vineyards being cut down, Mikheev said. “And it was also conducted against a background of economic difficulties; low oil prices,” he added.

Now there should be first of all measures that could change people’s mindsets, Mikheeev believes. The media should be used to promote a healthier lifestyle, and the advertising of alcohol should be limited, he added.

“People in Russia drink because of depression and gloomy prospects,” Andrey Bitov, a writer, told Gazeta daily. “However, it has always been like that,” he said.

Mikheev, in his turn, believes that “when we say this is a centuries-old Russian tradition, we only make things worse.” He added, “In this case, one can understand that it is useless to fight this vice.”

It did not seem useless in the ’80s, but that campaign failed. “Gorbachev's attempt to ban alcohol was little more than a diplomatic move to distract people from the change called perestroika,” Bitov stressed. “It was clear from the very beginning that the efforts would not bring anything.”

Medvedev’s call to pay special attention to young people is right, Bitov said. “The most important thing is that the decision of our government should not be only on paper,” he stressed.

Aleksandr Korovka, public relations manager of the Russian Alcohol company, called the possible ban on drinking an ineffective and populist measure. The promotion of a healthy lifestyle is better, he told Gazeta.ru. Producers of alcohol need “healthy consumers,” he added.

An opinion poll conducted recently by the All-Russian Public Opinion Study Center (VTsIOM) showed that 65% of respondents would support a new anti-alcohol program. Some 34% are totally in favor of a campaign and 31% are “likely to support it.”

Some 8% of those polled said they were against the initiative, 17% preferred to say no to any campaign. More women than men support the crackdown on drinking. The majority of respondents – 63% – spoke in favor of a ban on selling alcohol to people under 21.

At the same time, 57% of respondents supported a ban on alcohol advertising and 47% preferred a campaign that promotes healthy lifestyles. Some 34% believe drinking alcohol and being drunk in public places should be made a criminal offense.

Another measure which is often proposed by politicians and analysts is introducing a state monopoly on producing and distributing spirits. An anonymous source in the government, speaking to Vedomosti daily, called this measure “absolutely impossible,” because no one knows “how to realize this idea in reality.”

The Russian health minister is optimistic about the prospects of the new campaign. If all the measures suggested are implemented, “our national alcohol consumption will decrease to 14 liters per capita by 2012,” Golikova said.

Sergey Borisov, RT