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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Russia's hangover: How to curtail a serious drinking problem?

Drinking in public, in the instance on a Moscow street, is common in Russia. (Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press)

Russia's hangover: How to curtail a serious drinking problem?

New law declares beer an alcoholic beverage rather than food

At a party or banquet, bottles of alcohol are piled on a table, and the expectation is that you will imbibe, a lot, no matter what.

A professor of criminology, specializing in judicial reform, Peter Solomon has the kind of job that has often taken him from Toronto to provincial cities in Russia, where the obligatory parties and banquets with judges fairly brim with toasts.

"They want to take you through a drinking bout," says Solomon, of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. "The culture is, if you're a real man you empty your glass with each toast. You'll be drunk pretty quickly."

Most judges in Russia, he says, aren't alcoholics, but are people from fairly basic stock, not the upper-middle-class backgrounds that you more likely find in Canada. The kind of drinking he's seen at the Russian banquets is "part of a general culture," he says, and "much more common than not."

It's also been common for a very long time.

Still, new laws have been adopted that aim to curb the country's love affair with alcohol. The most recent last month declares beer, which has jumped in popularity, especially among younger people, an alcoholic beverage, rather than a food, which in theory could limit its sales.

But questions remain about how a country long known for its sometimes deadly dependence on drink can counter a habit that has been part of the collective psyche for centuries.

"In Russia, the drinking culture has long been established and historically justified," says Yuri Leving, chair of the department of Russian studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "No holiday is complete without a feast with the obligatory presence of a large amount of alcohol."

Leving goes on to note that "life in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia has never been easy, and often the cause of addiction to alcohol can be explained by man's desire to suppress strong emotions and escape from stress."

 Alcohol consumption is legal and accessible, and advertising puts it in a positive light.

Russia has long known it has a drinking problem, but not how to tackle it successfully.

In 2009, in one of the more recent acknowledgments of the problem, Dmitry Medvedev, who was then the country's president and is now prime minister, called it
 a "national calamity."

The numbers are stark: a report from the Russian Public Chamber in 2009 suggested that alcohol contributed to the deaths of about 500,000 Russians each year, and found that consumption was double the World Health Organization's critical level.

"In Russia, each person, including babies, accounts for about 18 litres of spirits per year. 

In the opinion of WHO experts, consumption of more than eight litres per year poses a real threat to the health of the nation. Russia has long exceeded this level," Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said in 2009, according to a report in RiaNovosti.

Damskaya, or 'Ladies' vodka, sparked worries among Russian doctors who feared a fresh wave of female alcoholics in a country already suffering one of the world's worst drink problems. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

 In addition to the beer law that came into effect on Jan. 1, other laws and regulations aim to restrict and limit alcohol sales and cut down on public drinking.

He points to statistics showing a rise in alcoholics among adolescent girls, and that 76 per cent of the population regularly consumes beer.

Russian government officials have also moved to make drunkenness an aggravating circumstance in any crime. That had been the case in the old Soviet Union, Solomon says, but it disappeared when the new Russian criminal code was adopted in 1996.

Medvedev's efforts are far from the first to try to counter Russia's drinking culture. But he will be hoping his efforts are more effective than the attempts in the mid-1980s by President Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the then-crumbling Soviet Union.

Gorbachev's campaign, which included hefty price hikes and a higher drinking age, proved unpopular, cost government coffers significantly and was shut down, just before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Alcohol deaths were not reduced by the campaign, author Alexandr Nemtsov wrote in his 2011 book, A Contemporary History of Alcohol in Russia.

"Russian drinking was again taking more lives than were criminals, Afghanistan and the two Chechen wars," he wrote. "Alcohol deaths did not become fewer, but Russians may have grown inured to them."

If Russians are now serious about their future as a healthy nation, they should follow the example of Sweden where:

 Swedish state monopoly includes a ban on advertising, high retail sales taxes, keeps alcohol shops and stores open only until 8 p.m. and shut on Sundays.

Russia's hangover: How to curtail a serious drinking problem? - World - CBC News