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Trying to break Russia's vodka dependence

1 January 10 08:33 GMT

By Daniel Fisher
BBC News, Moscow

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is hoping for some New Year's resolution among his countrymen, as he takes on one of Russia's most deeply-entrenched and prickliest problems - alcoholism.

From 1 January, restrictions on the price of vodka in Russia come into force.

The cheapest bottle of vodka on sale will be 89 roubles (around £1.80; $3) for a half-litre bottle. While that still might sound cheap, the new law is all part of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's plan to tackle alcoholism in Russia.

Russians drink seriously. As a country they get through on average about 18 litres (32 pints) of pure alcohol a year per person.

Last year, when Mr Medvedev kick-started his campaign, he called Russia's alcohol problem a "national disgrace" and said he was determined to cut that figure by a quarter by 2012.

But combating the consumption of what most Russians consider to be their national drink is a brave political move considering the lack of success his predecessors have had.

The last time anyone tried it was 24 years ago, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.

Perfume not sold

Then, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut vodka production and did not allow it to be sold before 2pm.

Significantly, perfume was also not to be sold before midday as people were starting to drink that.

Officially, lives were saved and alcoholism dropped, but Soviet state revenues took a massive hit and so did Mr Gorbachev's popularity. President Medvedev cannot allow either of those things to happen to him.

What Mr Medvedev does know, though, is that if he can reduce alcoholism in Russia, he is likely to improve health and life-expectancy, and therefore raise Russia's GDP.

At the moment, bootleg vodka is available at around 40 roubles a half litre. So even though $3 for bottle of vodka may seem cheap to most people, it is double the price of the bootleg version.

Importantly for the government, the minimum-price law brings in a way of telling what is illegal and what is not, and attempts to claw back some tax revenue.

Small step

But will establishing a minimum price be effective?

Doctors dealing with the problem are not sure.

"This law is not the solution, it is just a small step, albeit a positive one, in the fight against alcoholism," said Elena Igorevna, a doctor with Moscow's Scientific Centre for Substance Abuse.

"I believe that every problem must be addressed comprehensively. I think that alcohol consumption is an issue of national importance."

The problem for Mr Medvedev is that, historically, whenever Russia has tried to combat excessive drinking, illicit sales of alcohol have risen.

Experts estimate that bootleg vodka - often made after-hours in legal distilleries - makes up almost 50% of all vodka drunk by Russians.

Such liquor is unregulated and contributes heavily to the country's 35,000 deaths a year from alcohol poisoning.

The medical journal The Lancet earlier this year estimated that half of all deaths in Russia between 15 and 54 were alcohol-related.

Game-playing

It is probably even higher than the figure for road deaths, says political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, as work deaths and other accidental deaths in Russia are often drink-related.

However, he said, raising the price of vodka to 89 roubles appeared more to be political game-playing than trying to get to grips with the problem.

More effective, according to Mr Oreshkin, would be changing the culture and attitudes towards drink - but doing that would take generations and the problem, as ever, is that Russia always wants an instant solution.

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