Russia's president calls time on vodka "disaster"

MOSCOW Wed Aug 12, 2009 3:06pm EDT

1 of 2. Men drink vodka near the remote mountain village of Tsovkra-1, some 3,000 metres above sea level in Russia's Caucasus region of Dagestan August 20, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called time on the country's vodka tipplers, saying alcoholism had become a "national disaster."

Medvedev said measures aimed at reducing binge drinking had not reduced alcoholism in Russia, where downing vast amounts of vodka at one sitting is an integral part of national culture.

"If I speak openly, I think that one cannot speak of any change, nothing has changed," Medvedev told a meeting of senior officials in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, according to a copy of his remarks supplied by the Kremlin.

"Alcoholism in our country is a national disaster."

Medvedev said he was shocked by official data showing the average Russian drank 18 liters (38 pints) of pure alcohol each year.

"When you convert that into vodka bottles, it is simply mind-boggling," Medvedev said.

Doctors believe alcohol related diseases cause around half of all deaths of Russians between the ages of 15 and 54, a key factor in dire demographic forecasts used in long-term economic growth models.

Just 40 percent of this year's Russian school leavers are likely to live to the pension age of 55-60, according to World Health Organization figures quoted by Health Minister Tatyana Golikova.

Russia's rulers have had a love-hate relationship with vodka for decades: happy with the vast revenues that vodka sales bring but concerned by the social and health problems it leaves behind.

"This is a centuries old problem and one cannot hope to solve it overnight," Medvedev said.

Golikova said Russia needed a new campaign against alcoholism and appeared to praise Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's drive to reduce drinking in the mid-1980s.

"We are the absolute (world) leader in terms of alcohol consumption," said Golikova.

"No matter how one views the 1985-1990 anti-alcohol campaign and the mistakes that were made ... the campaign did lead to a serious drop in death rates, especially among men, and it saved the lives of one million people over five years," she said.

Gorbachev's opponents said his campaign led to a boom in illegal production of low-quality alcohol.

Russian officials say about 30-50 percent of Russia's vodka market is illegal and untaxed. Many officials say a state vodka monopoly would bring order to the market and make it easier to control.

(Editing by Sophie Hares)

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