Sunday, October 7, 2018

With Alcohol, Moscow Now Caught Between Wanting More Money and Protecting Health of Russians, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 7 – Russian government initiatives regarding alcohol sales “contradict one another,” experts say, because Moscow very much wants the additional tax money higher alcohol sales will bring but also declares it wants to see a reduction in drinking so as to improve the health and well-being of Russians. 

            In a Novaya gazeta article entitled, “Don’t Drink and Harm the Budget,” journalists Vyacheslav Polovinko and Lilit Sarkisyan survey both the most recent contradictory policies coming out of the government and the reaction of the expert community to this situation (

            This past Thursday, the journalists report, the finance ministry proposed raising the minimum price for vodka and cognac, something that would bring the government more in taxes but that the ministry justified as part of the campaign against illegal production of alcohol and the use of dangerous surrogates by the population.

            That logic might seem compelling to some, but experts dismiss it.  Mikhail Smirnov, editor of the portal, says that “at a minimum,” 50 percent of all alcohol sold in Russia is sold illegally because that allows dealers to sell it without paying the taxes the government wants to collect. Raising prices will only increase this illegal share, he says.

            According to Novaya gazeta, each part of the Russian government is going its own way now, with the finance ministry wanting one outcome – ever higher collections of taxation – and the health ministry insisting on quite another – lower alcohol consumption in order to improve public health.

            Looming behind these debates are fears among many that any tightening of controls over the sale of alcohol could provoke public outcry, with commentators noting that the two efforts to impose prohibition in Russia in the 20th century led, within only a few years of their start, to the overthrow of the governments that tried to do that.

            In the last decade, Moscow has restricted the sale of alcohol or at least tried to do so, the paper reports; “but in the last several months, the economic situation has forced the government itself to dismantled one anti-alcohol barrier after another,” the journalists and experts say.

            Some of the government’s ideas are quite controversial including lifting restrictions on the sale of alcohol at filling stations, something public health and safety experts are certain will lead to an increase in drunk driving and accidents but that the finance ministry denies. (See

            According to alcohol expert Smirnov, most Russian drivers who might buy alcohol at filling stations won’t immediately drink it. In his view, the finance ministry “doesn’t respect the population,” yet another case, the journalists say, of a dispute in Russia descending to the question of “’do you respect me?’”

            An equivalent dispute has arisen over suggestions that the government raise the minimum drinking age to 21, something that experts say won’t work because young people will always find a way around that. Indeed, economist Igor Nikolayev says that each new restriction will only increase corruption and illegal activity.

            Perhaps the most amusing and also instructive example of debates about the sale of alcohol in Russia comes from a finance ministry proposal to sell beer “at night but only in aluminum cans,” a measure clearly intended to help RUSAL and Oleg Deripaska who have suffered from Western sanctions.

            Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin jokes that this is clearly a reaffirmation of a longstanding Russian tradition since “already in the 17th century, [the use of aluminum cans] was a well-known phenomenon.”

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