Why Russia finally decided that beer is alcohol

Until Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new law today, beer was considered the same as soda and sold just about anywhere.

By Fred Weir July 20, 2011
Christian Science Monintor

A measure signed into law today by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will define beer as an alcoholic beverage for the first time in Russia, and finally put limits on where and when the brew can be sold.

Russian public health advocates and family groups have long complained about lax legislation that classified beer as a foodstuff. That enabled it to be sold like a soft drink, even from street kiosks, and consumed openly in any public place.

Even tourists visiting Russia often remark on the ubiquitous sight of people, including teenagers, swigging on bottles of beer while walking down the street, sitting in the bus or riding the metro.

All that is set to end on Jan. 1, 2013. Under the law signed by Mr. Medvedev, only licensed shops will be able to sell beer and never between 11 pm and 8 am. Public transport stops, gas stations, airports, and kiosks, which account for about a third of all beer sales in Russia, will not be able to sell the beverage at all.

The measure has driven the stocks of leading breweries that cater to the Russian market sharply lower, but it's attracting cheers from public organizations dedicated to fighting Russia's high rates of alcoholism.

"This is a good beginning in efforts to regulate the beer industry, although beer is not the main source of Russia's problems," says Kirill Danishevsky, co-chair of Control Alcohol!, a grassroots coalition.

"At least they've recognized that it's an alcoholic drink, and that's a huge step forward. At last there will be a complete ban on sales from outdoor kiosks and an end to TV advertising for beer," he says.

Since coming into office three years ago Medvedev has introduced a series of steps aimed at bringing down the rate of Russian alcohol consumption, which is one of the highest in the world.

According to official sources, the average Russian imbibes about five gallons of pure alcohol each year, which is twice the level the World Health Organization describes as the "danger level."

A 2009 study in the medical journal the Lancet estimated that alcohol abuse accounted for 600,000 deaths annually in Russia and fully half of all deaths of men between the ages of 15 and 54.

Mr. Danishevsky says the government should take further measures to make hard liquor more expensive and hard to get, including further increases in the excise tax.

But even he admits that it can be politically disastrous to take away a Russian's vodka. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discovered that when he tried to ban all sales of liquor - a move many historians agree hastened his downfall.

"For many, especially in the poorest strata of the Russian population, alcohol consumption is one of the few pleasures; it substitutes for other values in life," Danishevsky says. "The authorities have to take that into consideration and not make radical moves that will evoke strong resentment from the population. The best strategy is to move gradually, step-by-step, using educational methods as well as legal measures."