As of 2002, Russians are the world's leaders in alcohol consumption. The average Russian male drinks about four gallons of pure alcohol per year, which amounts to about a pint of vodka every other day. To put it in perspective, this is nearly twice what Americans consume.

As a result of this pernicious habit, the average Russian male is expected to live only 57 years. This means many Russian citizens will die of alcoholism even before they retire. While many observers hint that the problem is growing, the numbers are much more blatant: the number of deaths resulting from intoxication in January-May 2002 increased by 8.1 percent over the figures for January-May of 2001. This problem can only get worse as Russians face even more instability in their lives. But in spite of such an eventful history, the general consensus among Russians is that alcoholism is (and has always been) Russia's biggest problem.

Studies indicate that in Russia at least 30 percent of men and 15 percent of women are addicted to alcohol. The problems this causes are well-documented. Worldwide, alcohol abuse plays a factor in murders, suicides, rapes, accidents, incidences of domestic violence, not to mention various diseases. In Russia, this is multiplied a hundredfold. Even social drinking is a big problem, contributing to inefficient workers and absenteeism which costs Russian businesses millions in revenues, and further burdens the already stuggling economy. Government figures indicate that alcohol abuse has resulted in the deaths of 27 million people so far--only 3 million less than were killed in WWII. An estimated 27,000 Russians die annually from alcohol poisoning alone (although the figures tend to range--the total in 2000 was actually 34,000), which is a loss of manpower the country simply can't afford.

The Russians are known worldwide for their love of vodka, but excessive indulgence in the popular drink is the leading cause of death in the country. History records that alcohol has always been a part of Russian society. In the 10th century, Prince Vladimir (who was later made a saint) chose Christianity over Islam (which prohibited alcohol) for his people because, as he put it "drink is the joy of the Russians." Much later, Lenin's Bolsheviks tried to wipe out drinking by destroying distilleries and banning the sale of alcohol, but such drastic measures always ended in failure. Future Soviet-era Communist leaders campaigned against alcohol, while Mikhail Gorbachev re-introduced a form of prohibition in the 1980s, much to the distaste of his people. But such methods always resulted in failure. No one, it seemed, could keep the Russians from their vodka.

Recently, more moderate methods have been met with some success. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has been making headway in Russia since its inception there in 1986. There are currently 300 groups active in more than 100 towns. But these numbers seem minute when compared with the extent of the disease. Although AA was founded in the USA in 1935, it did not appear in Russia until the mid 80s due to the suspicion with which they regarded American organisations. Kon, a recovering alcoholic who was interviewed by CNN on the subject, explains: "Only after Perestroika it was possible to start AA because before that, oh, an American program, something, this is maybe CIA or something like that…many people would like to solve their problem, but they just don't know how." Their mission now is to deliver awareness to the millions of Russians annually whose lives are affected by alcohol abuse.

As another positive indicator, former President Boris Yeltsin, famous for his love of vodka (as well as his tendency to disappear for days on drinking binges and making public appearances while obviously drunk), was replaced by Vladimir Putin, a judo expert who exercises regularly. Although Russia received $3.2 billion in revenues from alcohol production in 2000-- more than 5 percent of total state income-- Mr. Putin immediately gave his approval to a series of strict new tax regulations in August 2000 which greatly hampered the alcohol producing industry.

Yet another encouraging sign is the growing preference for beer over hard liquor among Russians. Vodka sales from 1999-2000 decreased by 9%, while sales of beer have boasted steady increases every year for over a decade. Growth in 1999-2000 was 23%. Even more encouraging was the surprising popularity of a recently re-introduced non-alcoholic brand of beer, Baltika No. 0. When initially put on the market in 1996, sales were virtually non-existant. When it was re-introduced in 2000, sales were enormous and Baltika had to double their output the following year to meet with the demand.

While beer would seem infinitely preferable over vodka, due to its lower alcohol content, the rise of beer has given birth to a new wave of alcohol dependency, especially among teenagers. In Russia, due to the prevalence of hard liquor, beer is held in the same sort of regard as soft drinks, even by the government. Russian law puts beer in the same class as a soft drink, meaning that its sale is completely unrestricted. It is perfectly legal for someone of any age to buy beer, anywhere, anytime. It is also legal for manufacturers to advertise their product in schools, or to flood television and radio airwaves with ads aimed directly at adolescents. Russian citizens gather at street kiosks to enjoy a beer at any time of day, while it is advertised by companies such as Baltika as a civilized and healthy alternative to vodka.

These domestic brands of beer ruthlessly advertise with slick marketing campaigns which have proven extremely effective among Russia's teenaged population, possibly breeding a new generation of what Russian’s Deputy Health Minister, Dr. Gennady Onischenko has dubbed “beer alcoholism”. It is a common habit among teenagers of both sexes to be seen wandering the streets with a beer bottle in hand. Dr. Onischenko wearily acknowledges their treatment of beer as a fashion accessory, and laments their widely held belief that “if you don’t have a beer in your hand, you are not a real man.” sources:

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