Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered new restrictions on the sale of beer and similar beverages last month in an effort to battle Russia's rampant alcoholism. Questions are arising about why he is not targeting Russia's drink of choice, vodka.
Russia is one of the world's largest per-capita consumers of alcohol. The average Russian drinks 18 liters of alcohol a year. That is more than twice the maximum amount considered healthy by the World Health Organization.
The Lancet medical journal reported last month alcohol-related diseases caused around half of all deaths of Russians between the ages of 15 and 54.
In an effort to battle Russia's rampant alcoholism, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced restrictions barring the sale of beer in cans or bottles larger than one-third of a liter. The new rules apply to ''light alcohol'' beverages, but not to wine, vodka or other hard liquors.
The head of the Moscow-backed research group the New Eurasia Foundation, Andrei Kortunov, says it is no surprise Mr. Medvedev introduced the measure. "This is a tradition in Russia. That practically every new leader who comes to power in Moscow wants to do something about alcohol. Everyone understands that it is a national problem and something has to be done about that," he said.
But some say his efforts fall short of addressing the real problem.
Anna Boguslavskaya is in her 20s, lives in Moscow, and loves the nightlife. She says she goes to clubs and bars on a regular basis and thinks the restrictions are ineffective. She says limiting the size of containers will not solve the problem, it will have the opposite effect. She says people will just buy more bottles of beer.
Kortunov also says limiting the size of beer cans probably is not going to make people drink less. He says he thinks the government's anti-beer campaign is not targeting Russia's drinking problem. "You know, beer is not the only drink which Russian population consumes in plenty. I think one of the reasons it happens paradoxically is because most of the beer production is now controlled by foreign companies," he said.
Russia is the world's fifth-largest beer market. Danish brewer Carlsberg has about 41 percent of the market share and analysts estimate the rest is shared by other imported and domestic brands.
The government has also submitted legislation that would increase the excise tax on beer by an average of 50 percent per year from 2010 to 2012. The proposal has already affected Carlsberg, which brews Russia's No. 1 beer, Baltica. The company's shares recently dropped to a four-week low.
Kortunov says the Kremlin needs to address the real root of the problem. "We should do something about education about enlightening people. We should develop this infrastructure that will allow people to go to sports and fitness centers. We should also advertise a healthy lifestyle," he said.
In recent months, there have been sporadic government sponsored events at sports complexes throughout Moscow, encouraging people to exercise instead of drink.
Moscow resident Svetlana Andreeva, 25, says promoting sports is a good strategy, but it only targets young people. She says the program is not going to help solve alcoholism for guys 55 years old, whose lives are boring.
Kortunov says he doubts the government's campaign will have a real effect on the problem. "If it is just the first step, we can give Medvedev the benefit of the doubt, though this step is probably rather a clumsy one. If it is all that they can offer, I think the results are not likely to be that great," he said.
If history is any indication, Kortunov may be correct. In 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered dramatic cuts in the production of wines and spirits and introduced strict controls on the public consumption of alcohol. The campaign triggered a massive surge in illegal production of low-quality home-brewed alcohol.