Photo: AFP/Philippe Huguen
Many Russians consider beer a soft drink – a light refresher that can be guzzled on the way to work or sucked down in great quantities before a picnic and a swim in the river.Hard drinkers sniff at its weakness, as the saying goes: “Beer without vodka is like throwing money to the wind.”
But a hung-over nation will wake up to a new and troubling reality on New Year’s Day when beer in Russia becomes classified as an alcoholic drink for the very first time.
Until now the brew has been considered a foodstuff along with all other drinks under 10 per cent in strength. An array of international and local brands from Amstel to Efes and Baltika to Zhiguli could be bought from street kiosks or at railway stations, as well as from countless 24-hour corner shops, just like fruit juice or mineral water.
Morning or evening, people supping from cans or bottles are a common sight in parks, squares and on Moscow’s Metro.
Beer’s new status as alcohol, however, will prevent retail sales from street outlets such as kiosks, railway stations, bus stops and petrol stations – which account for up to 30 per cent of sales – as well as preventing sales between 11pm and 8am, and introducing a ban on television advertising of beer.
The new restrictions were signed off by then President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011 as part of an attempt to counter alcohol abuse, which he earlier called a “national calamity”.
The average Russian drinks the equivalent of 32 pints of pure alcohol per year and about 500,000 deaths annually are thought to be drink-related. That includes a large number of about 30,000 annual road accident deaths and of several thousand cases of drowning.
Vodka remains the most popular – and most damaging – alcoholic drink in Russia but beer has been steadily advancing on it in recent years.
The new measures restricting sales could be a blow to beer’s challenge.
Isaac Sheps, the chairman of the Union of Russian Brewers, claimed that cutting access to beer – including attempts by some regional governments to ban sales after 7pm or 8pm rather than 11pm – could be damaging to health.
“It will be tougher if you want to buy a beer on the way home from work, or pop down from your apartment,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
“So you have to stock at home. And stocking beer is more problematic than stocking vodka. It’s bulky, it’s big, there’s no room for it in small homes. It’s much easier to buy two bottles of vodka and manage for your instant need for alcohol.
“So it’s quite ironic that this attempt to improve health and lower alcoholism could have the opposite effect and cause people to drink more harmful spirits.”
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