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Alejandro Navas García, Professor of Sociology, University of Navarra, Spain

Russia fights against alcohol and tobacco

Wed, 07 Aug 2013 10:13:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

After a few years of instability following the fall of communism, Russia is once again playing a strong role on the international stage. Integrated into the group of the emerging nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China: BRIC), it has set out to regain its role as a major power. It will not be easy, as today's world is more complex than that of the Cold War, with its two clearly defined blocs, led by the United States and the Soviet Union. Today's Russia is not as strong as its predecessor, and other actors have emerged with a thirst for prominence: the bipolar world has given way to a multipolar one.

But Russia's main enemy is within: alcohol and, to a lesser extent, tobacco. Their ravages on the health of the population have set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin. The country has been losing population, and life expectancy is lower today than it was sixty years ago. The UN estimated in 2009 that the 142 million Russians at that time would become 116 million in 2050, and that forecast is still valid today. Vladimir Putin and his government know that there is no political power or economic prosperity without the necessary demographic base: human capital is the main factor of wealth in today's economies.

Putin's style of government leaves much to be desired from a democratic point of view. His actions bring him closer to the tsarist autocracy or the Soviet regime than to Western democracies. And since it is difficult to separate the public and private spheres, since the person is one, it is not surprising that he has recently separated from his wife. But in all honesty he must be recognized for his integrity and courage on one point: the fight against alcohol. His sobriety is proverbial, in contrast to the tradition of his predecessors. Very exceptionally, he has been seen with a glass of vodka in his hand, even though it is the national drink. In any case, he drinks a little beer when there is a reason to celebrate something and he does not want to look like a party pooper.

Since example remains the best preacher, Putin has the moral authority to lead a public crusade against alcohol and tobacco consumption. It is estimated that 500,000 Russians die each year as a result of alcoholism and some 400,000 from the effects of tobacco (40% of the Russian population is smokers). The President's concern in this regard goes back a long way. In 2010, when he was head of government, he surprised public opinion by expressing his displeasure at the fact that six of his ministers smoked on press conference : he felt it was essential for members of the Executive to set a good example to the public. Last year, the sale of alcohol -including wine- was banned at night, and the blood alcohol limit for driving was lowered to zero percent.

At the beginning of the year, beer ceased to be considered a staple food and was taxed as an alcoholic beverage. The restrictions affect the conditions of sale and advertising, which has been banned. As with other alcoholic beverages, beer can no longer be sold at night. Supermarket shelves that are open all day are closed after dark. "The night is for begetting children and not for drinking beer," says one of the official slogans. Even buying a can of beer during the day has become more difficult: street stalls and kiosks are no longer allowed to do so.

Putin's next step, goal , is to place similar restrictions on tobacco sales, which will be banned in establishments with less than 50 square meters of floor space. Some 160,000 kiosk owners fear for their survival and are threatening to protest, but the authorities are standing firm.

As other governments -including our own- are doing, prices and taxation affecting alcohol and tobacco are going up. It is hoped that this measure will deter future buyers, particularly young people, who have less purchasing power.

The devastating effects of alcohol are not unique to Russia - nor to Moldova, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the countries that lead Europe in alcohol consumption, ahead of Russia. Without going any further, they also constitute a formidable challenge for public health in our country. It is all well and good to discuss the healthcare regime and the best use of resources, but this should not mean that the fight against pathogenic factors is neglected. We could learn something in this respect from Putin's Russia.