Russia’s Drinking Problem

Dima Medvedev has suddenly started blabbing about illegal narcotics. Mark Lawrence Schrad, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and the author of The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions and the Global Prohibition Wave, writing in the New York Times, explains why:

IN an effort to reduce both its sky-high alcoholism rate and its budget gap, Russia recently announced plans to quadruple the tax on the country’s eternal vice, vodka, over the next three years.

But while the move might be well intentioned, the long history of liquor taxation in Russia exposes a critical obstacle in the path of any anti-drinking campaign: the Kremlin’s own addiction to liquor revenues, which has derailed every previous effort to wean Russians from their tipple.

Russians consume about 18 liters of pure alcohol per person a year, more than twice the internationally recommended limit, a rate that President Dmitri A. Medvedev has called a “natural disaster.” Thanks in part to lifelong heavy drinking, the life expectancy for the average Russian man is now about 60 years, just below that of Haiti. Alcohol poisoning alone kills 40,000 Russians a year (compared with about 300 in the United States), and alcohol plays a role in more than half of all premature deaths.

Rampant alcoholism is nothing new, and Russian governments since the Middle Ages have introduced liquor taxes to reduce drinking rates.

But in almost every case, the public-health goal has been undermined by the state’s efforts to increase tax revenue. In Russia, the demand for vodka persists even when prices go up, so the state has an ever-present temptation to raise taxes and fill the treasury under the political cloak of making vodka more dear. Yet government after government has taken the following step of then promoting drinking to produce more revenue.

In 1591, for example, the English ambassador Giles Fletcher lamented that Ivan the Terrible encouraged his subjects to drink their last kopecks away in state-owned taverns where “none may call them forth whatsoever cause there be, because he hindereth the emperor’s revenue.”

Later, the ideological godfather of the Russian Revolution, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, denounced the state’s abdication of its responsibilities of “promoting national honor, the moral welfare of the nation, justice and fairness,” all of which he argued had been sacrificed to a system of hefty vodka taxes. “The only reason for its existence is monetary,” he complained. “Its sole purpose and concern is money, money, money.”

Though he was exiled to Siberia for this sort of criticism, Chernyshevsky’s argument was sustained by his revolutionary disciple, Lenin, who banned vodka during the early years of the Soviet Union.

But the siren song of liquor-tax revenue proved too tempting for Stalin, who lifted the ban to support the communist autocracy. “What is better, the yoke of foreign capitalism, or the sale of vodka?” he said. “Naturally, we will opt for vodka.”

Vodka revenues even played a role in the collapse of the Soviet state. In 1985, Mikhail S. Gorbachev restricted vodka sales to get Russian workers back to the assembly line; because vodka taxes provided a full quarter of the entire Soviet budget, the result was a substantial drop in government revenues. The Kremlin tried to patch the budget hole by printing more money, which worsened the hyperinflation that hastened the downfall of the communist state.

To his credit, Mr. Medvedev seems to grasp the pitfalls of trying to tax an entrenched culture of drinking out of existence, and he favors incremental, realistic policies like public-service messages and advertising restrictions rather than the bombastic and often hollow policy pronouncements of his predecessors.

Yet the proposed quadrupling of vodka taxes now threatens to undo this gradual progress, and return to not only the autocratic timbre of policymaking, but also the traditional harnessing of state finances to the vodka bottle. It will be hard to avoid the allure of maintaining, or even increasing, the estimated $11.2 billion in extra revenue that the proposed taxes will bring in.

Is the Kremlin poised to again stumble into this eternal liquor trap? It definitely seems so: in the fall of 2010 Russia’s finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, told reporters that the best thing that his fellow citizens could do to help the country’s flaccid national economy was to smoke and drink more, thereby paying more in taxes.

“Those who drink,” Mr. Kudrin said, “are giving more to help solve social problems such as boosting demographics, developing other social services and upholding birth rates.”

Not only will the government be tempted to dial back its anti-drinking campaigns to preserve its liquor tax revenues, but the higher prices for legal alcohol — from about $3.50 for a half-liter bottle today to $14 — will, if experience holds true, drive Russians to drink dangerous and unregulated homebrews, as well as poisonous surrogates like eau de cologne, shoe polish and even jet fuel. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin recently based his opposition to the tax increase on precisely these past lessons.

Yet if Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev are to invoke the lessons of the past in dealing with Russia’s alcohol epidemic, they need to look more broadly at the dubious historical role of alcohol as a pillar of state finance. The only real solutions entail significant increases in public-health spending, rehabilitation programs, youth awareness campaigns and stricter advertising limits, as well as incremental rather than radical changes to pricing and availability.

Even then, the problem will take decades to solve. Most important, the Kremlin should take the first step to its own recovery and admit that it too has an alcohol problem, and not make the health of Russian finances dependent on the misery of its people.

13 responses to “Russia’s Drinking Problem

  1. Ivan Braginski

    Be one with mother Russia

  2. You failed to mention, once again, that actual vodka production (including estimated underground/illegal production and samagon brewing) has been dropping and alcohol-related deaths have been steadily dropping in Russia. Raising the price shouldn’t be problematic, but all of these policies are crap. The only real solution would be sukhoi zakon.

    • What’s “sukhoi zakon?”

      • RV,

        “sukhoi zakon”, literally means ‘dry command’ by government legislation, in this case Putin’s rubber stamp, “Duma”. The best example of this type being “prohibition” that the US tried and where it failed miserably.

        You have to bear in mind that comrade “Runet” is a communist apologist (and hence an inveterate liar). His crap that “actual vodka production (including estimated underground/illegal production and samagon brewing) has been dropping and alcohol-related deaths have been steadily dropping in Russia.” is just a figment of his wild imagination which runs riot in his dense skull. But then he, most probably, got this blatant piece of propaganda from his beloved truth rag, i.e.”” where the sun shines out of ‘fuehrer’ Putin’s backside.

        By the way RV, ‘somogonka’ is predominantly made from sugar. Hence it is raw “Rum”, and very crude rum at that.

        • @The best example of this type being “prohibition” that the US tried and where it failed miserably.

          No, the best example is the Russian prohinbition of 1914 – only 3 years later their part of the world war was lost, their empire was no more, and even their ex-tsar was soon dead, too. Na zdarovye.

          Oh, and Nick II also tried to promote beer instead of vodka among his loving subjects. But it was in Russia, so the results were piles of corpses (literally), as always:

          (And no, I don’t quite understand this fuss about a few young Russian males who were too stupid to evade draft so they died when “it sunk”, just after the mass murder of uncounted thousands of civilians in Chechnya that sparked no such outrage.)

        • Oh, the prohibition, I see. It’s amazing that this hopelessly flawed idea is still around. As most people know, we had that in the 1920’s, and the only thing we got from it was organized crime. If a country wants to get her own Al Capone and Bugs Moran, the surest way of achieving it is prohibition.

          • Well, one could argue the ban on drugs is also fuelling the organised crime (and the FARC, the Taliban, etc).

            • Yes, it’s true, I also think that the war on drugs is ridiculously misguided. Is that a good reason to add to that by banning the booze also?

  3. Actually drugs also kill a plenty of Russians (tens of thousands every year, mostly young), also of course help to spread HIV among the heroin junkies. It’s almost as bad as the traditional problem of alcoholism.

    It’s also the Afghans’ great revenge.

    RUSSIA | 18.04.2011
    Heroin addiction threatens Russia’s economic and demographic health,,14996763,00.html

    Russia is located close to Afghanistan, the world’s top heroin producer, and has long porous borders that make trafficking relatively easy. The rate of heroin addiction in Russia is the third largest in the world.

    “According to expert estimates, we have no fewer than 2.5 million people taking drugs,” said Medvedev. “That is, of course, a scary figure.”

    (Of course it is, Dima. Russia is overally a very scary place.)

    The United Nations’ World Health Organization says heroin has also fuelled Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, the fastest growing in the world.

    In addition, high rates of heavy smoking, alcoholism, pollution and poverty coupled with a decline in birth rates after the collapse of the Soviet Union have led to further demographic decline.

    The UN projects Russia’s population will shrink from 143 million to 116 million by 2050.

    “Genocide is underway, the nation is being destroyed,” said Valentina Chervichenko, chairwoman of the Mothers against Narcotics Association.

    • My I add that the russian orthodox churches, all over russia, sell to their flocks, officially, cigarettes and vodka and, unofficially, the afghan heroin. That the way to go Russia!!!!

  4. ” Saukhoi zakon ” , actually means ” dry LAW ” . Hence implementing it would create the same climate as Prohibition , providing yet another great pooprtunity for the already pervasive criminal
    majority to capitalize . In order to prevent moscovites from drinking
    themselves to death , a in depth , radical cultural change is needed .
    As for the population decrease : the study shows that by 2050 the
    moscovites will be down to 80 mil . NOT 116 , as someone stated .

  5. Sorry , typo ; should be : Sukhoi zakon .

  6. Pingback: Russia in Afghanistan « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

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