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

New Russian laws aim to curb alcohol consumption, but questions remain about how a country, long known for its deadly dependence on drink, can counter a habit that has been part of the collective psyche for centuries.

New law declares beer an alcoholic beverage rather than food

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

Peter Solomon has felt the pressure Russians put on others to drink.

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.

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A professor of criminology, specializing in judicial reform, 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."

Solomon begs off on health grounds, only to be teased for it.

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.

"If somebody said to me 'Is the drinking problem in Russia worse today than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago?', it would be very hard to say," says Solomon, who's been going to Russia since 1963.

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."

There are social causes, too, he wrote in an email. 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.

"They go back and forth and they try everything," says Solomon, noting that government efforts have ranged from prevention and education to attempts at cracking down on alcohol-fuelled hooliganism.

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.

The numbers vary from source to source, and over time, but even Canadian statistics show the scope of the consumption – and not just of the classic drink of vodka.

In 2010, according to a consumer trends report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Russians drank 68 litres of beer, 12 litres of spirits and seven litres of wine a year. The Canadian equivalent is 50 litres of beer, 4.3 litres of spirits and 10 litres of wine.

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.

Oksana Negorutsa, a Toronto-area resident who spent much of her childhood in Sochi, the Russian resort city that will welcome the world to the 2014 Winter Olympics, says the new law is proving popular.

"People do understand that alcohol consumption is high and something should be done about it," says Negorutsa, who is in close touch with family in Sochi.

Still, she suggests that new law may not hold all the answers for dealing with the problem.

"There are 140 million people in Russia and although overall consumption is high, not everybody is drinking. A lot of people do realize that there is an issue and that things should change, but I’m sure that at the same time many people are absolutely satisfied with the situation or just simply do not care."

Leving, who travels frequently to Russia, says it's hard to disagree with Medvedev's assessment of the alcohol problem.

"Perhaps the main problem of alcoholism in Russia so far [lay] in the very denial of a problem," he suggests.

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

"Drunk driving is another serious issue in Russia. My hope is that Medvedev and his team consider it necessary to finally take stringent measures to combat the problem, and that the new anti-alcohol law is more than just a populist spin."

Solomon says concerns about drunk driving escalated recently after a horrific crash in Moscow in September when a drunk driver going 190 km/h on a city street crashed into a bus stop, killing seven people, including five teens.

Within a day of the crash, a member of the Duma made a proposal that led to a draft law that would make drunk driving a crime, whereas in the past it has been primarily an administrative offence, says Solomon.

The Russian supreme court has suggested the draft law is too severe, and another Duma member has made a proposal that is not as extreme.

"This is a controversy," says Solomon. "We don't know exactly how it's going to come out, but something will, no doubt."

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.

Worst of all, says Negorutsa, people didn't stop drinking, even if alcohol manufacturing and sales fell. They just changed what they drank.

"Many started to make their own wine and moonshine, or even worse, they started to drink everything that contains alcohol — eau de cologne, cleaning liquids etc."

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, suggests Leving, they should follow the example of their Scandinavian neighbour.

A 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.

"Advertising of alcohol in Russia is aggressive and, one has to admit, it looks pretty sexy, so it is hard to resist it, especially if you are ... young," says Leving.