Saturday, April 12, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Says Russians are Drinking Less but Russians Say They’re Drinking More

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 12 – The Russian government is celebrating what it says is a success in its battle to reduce alcohol consumption by pointing to a decline of seven percent in vodka sales in 2013, but more than three out of four Russians say they are drinking as much or more as in the past, with many of them turning to samogon, the Russian for “moonshine,” or other surrogates.

             “Nezavsimaya gazeta” calls attention to this divergence and cites experts who say that efforts by Moscow and regional governments to restrict alcohol sales are having the same effect such efforts have had in the past: driving people away from regulated and taxed alcohol to unregulated and untaxed products (

            Alina Terekhova, a journalist for the Moscow paper, cites the plans of the authorities in Sakha to restrict the sale of alcohol by reducing the number of places where it can be sold. But she then cites experts who say that such much-ballyhooed efforts are destined to have little impact, at least in the intended way.

            A new poll by the Public Opinion Foundation in fact finds that despite the government’s anti-alcohol initiatives in recent years, 36 percent of those surveyed said they were drinking more than they did earlier, and 41 percent said they were drinking just as much.  Only 11 percent said they were drinking less.
            Asked to compare the situation now with the one that existed in Soviet times, 45 percent of those sampled said they were certain that people are drinking more now than they did in the 1970s and 1980s, 20 percent said they didn’t think there had been any change, “and only nine percent spoke about a reduction in consumption.”

            Such statements are at odds with what the Russian Statistics Committee has been reporting.  According to Rosstat, alcohol sales fell 1.8 percent from 2012 to 2013, vodka sales by seven percent, with beer and wine sales remaining essentially at the same levels.

            But Vadim Drobiz, the head of the Moscow Center for the Investigation of Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, says that “there is no mystery here: what is happening is that the population is little by little ceasing to drink alcohol sold in stores and turning to production from garages.”

            According to the expert, “there is not a single social-economic cause” that would explain a seven percent drop.  Instead, demand for alcohol is “growing now absolutely everywhere and not just in [Russia].” But because in Russia, “the most expensive alcohol in the world” is not at the top end but in the mid-range, “people are simply ceasing to buy quality alcohol.”

            Instead, they are turning other sources, including “dual use” liquids, he says, noting that the Russian alcohol market consists of three parts: the legal, the illegal (alcohol produced by distilleries but sold without the payment of taxes), and surrogates. The authorities have reduced the size of the second, but they have not been able to control the growth of the third.

            Over the last two years, he continues, the shift to surrogates has accelerated because many Russians  lack the funds to pay even for the illegal untaxed kind let alone the legal and taxed variety that official statistics register. Producers of surrogates have expanded both production and sales over the same period.

            And these sales are largely beyond the reach of the state. Indeed, there is now “a powerful network for the sale of alcohol from hand to hand,” one which means that while many rural areas now do not have stores selling alcohol, the population doesn’t need them because it has these informal networks to satisfy its needs.

            The real tragedy in all this, although not noted by the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” article, is not the decline in tax revenues to the state but rather into the impact such surrogates have on public health.  Many contain poisons, and consequently, Russian policies designed to reduce drinking are having the tragic effect of making Russians sicker – or even killing them.

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