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Are More Russians Drinking Less Alcohol?



the Russian consumer protection watchdog

Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian consumer rights agency, says in its report for 2016 that the number of patients diagnosed with alcoholism for the first time has been reduced by 36% compared to last year, claiming its anti-alcohol campaigns are reducing consumption.

...little if any data available to back claim.

In a report released to media outlets on April 12, the Russian consumer rights’ watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, concluded that alcohol consumption has decreased because there were 36% less patients admitted for clinical observation for the first time with the diagnosis of "alcoholism." The number of those already registered at treatment facilities has dropped by 24% as well, said the report.

Yet even the pro-government newspaper Izvestia, which received a copy of the Rospotrebnadzor report signed by agency head Anna Popova, was skeptical about these findings, as the report did not indicate which set of figures it was using to make the claim for such a sharp reduction. Furthermore, the report’s aim was to demonstrate that the drop was due in large part to Rospotrebnadzor's own campaigns to reduce alcohol abuse. Izvestia reported that the Russian Ministry of Health did not reply to its queries about the report.

Izvestia was able to get a comment from Tatyana Klimenko, director of the Health Ministry's Federal Medical Research Center for Psychiatry and Narcology, who pointed out that according to a health law passed in 2011, Russians may be put on lists for clinical observation only with their voluntary consent. She said the number of patients dropped accordingly, and with it the diagnosis of "alcoholism." Another factor likely contributing to the drop in such registrations is that police are now more likely to request clinics hand over lists of designated alcoholics in order to allow authorities to revoke their driving licenses. This causes people to avoid turning to clinics where they could be registered.

Russian officials have claimed for some years that various measures such as banning sale of liquor and beer at night and raising taxes have reduced alcohol consumption to 13.5 liters per capita per year (still among the highest in the world) and that wine and beer are replacing vodka. But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that 30% of all deaths in Russia were attributed to alcohol, a stark indication of the scope of the continuing problem.

Any claim of reduction of consumption of officially-recognized and state-controlled alcoholic beverages would have to be balanced against the rampant use of illegal moonshine and alcohol surrogates such as after-have and bath lotion, which are cheaper and untaxed. Last year after at least 77 people died from drinking Boyaryshnik, a bath lotion, President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to crack down on such surrogates, said to make up as much as 20% of all alcohol consumption.

Statistics on the making of moonshine or use of alcohol surrogates such as aftershaves have not been kept in the Soviet or Russian eras but there is an estimate of at least 7.3% of the population drinking such illegal substances based on deaths from the products and possibly as many as 10 percent.

In April, on orders from Vice Premier Aleksandr Khloponin, the Ministry of Finance planned to raise the price of vodka about 15% to "account for the rise of inflation and excise taxes," but this encountered resistance from other ministries and a rise of only about 8% was planned for April. The Center for Study of Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets has opposed the plan because without cheaper vodka, it argued, people will shift to the more dangerous substitutes.

Higher prices could in theory cause less consumption, especially in light of other economic upheavals that have decreased Russians' salaries, employment and savings.

Yet vodka production has increased 66%, and remains an important source of state revenue. This does not necessarily indicate an increase in demand or sales, however but rather an effort to displace illegal spirits which had caused the production of legal alcohol to drop 9% in 2016 by contrast with 2015.

Meanwhile, the production of substances that contain alcohol and may be labelled as food additives has risen by 150% to compensate for the sale of products not meant for consumption but which Russians drink anyway.

The Izvestia article is a relatively rare case of a pro-government newspaper questioning a government claim and bringing other facts to bear from specialists to challenge it.