Turning beer into alcohol is a delicate brew in Russia

January 18, 2011

MOSCOW - Russia's Duma deputies might find it easier to turn lead into gold than make beer into alcohol.

Creating gold requires only the magic of alchemy, but the fate of a proposal to legally define beer as an alcoholic drink will depend on the even more challenging art of politics.

Russian law treats beer as a food - it could just as well be a package of pasta - and anyone who makes and sells it only has to prove that conditions are sanitary. This lack of regulation and attendant attitude, critics say, has contributed to young people starting to drink as early as age 13, paving the way to the nation's unbridled alcoholism.

Even so, approval looked far from certain when the government last week asked the Duma to pass a law defining beer as alcohol, so it could be banned at children's events and limited at the ubiquitous street kiosks where it's now practically interchangeable with soda.

Duma deputies are up for election in December, deputy Anton Belyakov pointed out, and too many of them depend on the well-off beer industry for financing.

"It's billions and billions of dollars a year," said Belyakov, a member of the minority Fair Russia party. "I want to repeat: A significant part of that financial flow goes into the building where I work."

The proposed law is relatively mild - beer could still be made without a license - and it was cast as furthering a goal set by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev to cut the nation's alcohol consumption in half by 2020.

"There are a lot of public statements about anti-alcohol measures," said Belyakov, who said he has unsuccessfully introduced about 15 such measures over the last two years, "but nothing really happens to decrease alcohol consumption."

Russian officials frequently offer horrifying statistics about the damage from alcohol: The number of children aged 10 to 14 who drink rose 15.4 percent in 2008, to 10.8 million; the population of 140 million has 2 million alcoholics; more than 23,000 people die of alcohol poisoning annually; and 500,000 die from crimes, accidents and illnesses related to alcohol.

"Frankly speaking," Medvedev has said, "alcoholism in our country has become a national tragedy."

Beer, which is usually less than 5 percent alcohol, does not rank in the public imagination with "real" alcohol, such as vodka, at 40 percent. But Belyakov said marketing beer toward young people starts a habit that is deeply ingrained by the time they turn 30 or so and begin consuming stronger drinks.

Vadim Drobiz, director of the Research Center for Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, said that as the beer market was developing here in the 1990s, officials hoped it would prove a healthier alternative to hard liquor.

But instead, without dropping the ubiquitous vodka toast, Russians also developed a thirst for beer that required considerable slaking, contributing to a prodigious consumption of alcohol. The World Health Organization calculated that in 2005, Russians over 15 were drinking the equivalent of 15.7 liters of alcohol per capita per year. The U.S. figure for that year was 8.4 liters, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Those figures are determined by the amount of alcohol in each type of beverage: drinking 2.5 liters of vodka, for example, would amount to 1 liter of alcohol consumed.

"If you convert this into bottles of vodka," Medvedev said at a 2009 forum, "it torments the soul."

Converting it into beer, Drobiz said that Russians consume about 81 liters per capita per year, and that beer consumption in 2007 was 51/2 times greater than in 1995.

Members of the Union of Russian beer producers, who say they do not market to teenagers, say beer should not be blamed for alcoholism when it makes up only a quarter of the alcohol being consumed. They suggest that officials fix social problems first.

The drinking age is 18, but Pavel Shapkin, head of the Center for Development of a National Alcohol Policy, says even that is not strictly enforced.

"Of course beer is sold to minors," he said. "Nothing is monitored, nothing is controlled. Beer is very accessible. So if we are talking about the government trying to decrease consumption at least twice by 2020, how can you do this without restricting the consumption of beer?"

Whether the Duma will find a way to turn beer into alcohol remains unclear, but everyone agrees that lobbyists will find much to occupy them.

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