Staunton, April 15 – In its continuing quest for ways to get Russians to stop drinking, the Russian health ministry has called for alcohol to be sold only in special stores rather than, as now, in many ordinary groceries and shops, an arrangement it says has “shown its effectiveness” in many countries but one that in Russia would lead to a public health and economic disaster.
“Izvestiya” reports that Yevgeny Bryun, the health ministry’s chief psychiatrist working on alcohol and drug dependencies, plans to propose that Moscow ban the sale of alcohol in ordinary grocery stores and shops and rely instead on dedicated stores selling only alcoholic beverages (izvestia.ru/news/585263).
There is support for his idea in the ministry, the paper says, because experts there note that such an arrangement is already in place and working well in other countries. And they argue that banning the sale of alcohol in regular stores will end what they see as a dangerous trend of impulse buying of products consumers did not intend to purchase.
Russian consumption of alcohol has fallen over the last five years, Bryun says, from 18 liters of pure alcohol to 13.5 liters per capita per year. (Those figures are for the population as a whole. Working age males consume far more than that, and working age females have been consuming more over the same period.)
Restricting alcohol sales to special stores will cut that number still further, as an experiment now taking place in the Sakha Republic suggests. There, since January 1, alcohol has been available only in special stores, thus making it more difficult for consumers to obtain and thus reducing their consumption.
But in Russia, there are two reasons why such a step almost certainly would prove counterproductive. On the one hand, the establishment of special liquor stores would deprive many food stores of their high profit sales and thus lead to a contraction in their number and unemployment among their current workforce.
And on the other, and perhaps even more serious, history shows that if Russians cannot get legal alcohol, they will turn to moonshine (“samogon” as it is known in Russian) or even more dangerous alcohol surrogates with an increase in illnesses and deaths as a result. That would be especially true in rural areas where few liquor stores would be likely to be set up.
The “Izvestiya” article focuses on the first of these problems: According to experts with whom the paper consulted, sales of alcohol now account for about 12 percent of the income of supermarkets in Russia and about 40 percent of kiosk sales in neighborhoods. The loss of such sales would result in massive unemployment, small business owners say.
Aleksey Kanevsky, a leader of one small business organization, says that banning alcohol sales in regular food stores would “drive thousands of small entrepreneurs from the market and millions of people would be left without work.” And according to him, “few businessmen want to open alcohol shops.”
If he is right but Moscow goes ahead anyway, two things are certain: there will be a push toward state-owned liquor stores, yet another place for massive corruption, and many rural areas will be left without any access to legally sold alcohol. In that event, most who drink now won’t stop but rather will turn to more harmful potables with predictable public health consequences.