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More Russians Turning to the Bottle; Hard Times, Market Forces Blamed

November 22, 1995

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russians are drinking more than at any time in the past decade, more than any other country in Europe, and more than their bodies or their society can handle.

``Sobriety is no longer the moral norm in Russia,″ Andrei Demin, president of the non-profit Public Health Association, said at a news conference Wednesday.

``We see a new culture _ people holding open cans on the street and drinking. ... Russia’s a huge country, and it will take time to change the whole way of thinking.″

Demin’s group released the findings of a conference on alcoholism sponsored by the World Health Organization, which show that the gains made by Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign 10 years ago have now completely unraveled.

The association pins the blame on looser state controls and a decade of social upheaval.

Alcohol is a key factor in the rapid decline in Russian men’s life expectancy, which now stands at 57 _ younger than retirement age. It also plays a major role in the rise of crime and traffic fatalities, police say.

At this time of year, its ravages become clear in the number of vodka-soaked corpses found frozen in parks and streets.

``It’s hard to get through to people that this problem threatens not only individuals’ health but the health of Russian society,″ said Alexander Nemtsov, an analyst with the Public Health Association.

Nemtsov said Russians consume nearly 4 gallons of pure alcohol per person annually. For adult men, that’s about 90 one-quart bottles of vodka.

The French, with the next highest consumption rate in Europe, down about 3.4 gallons a year, he said.

A U.S. consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says per capita alcohol consumption in the United States was 2.31 gallons in 1992, the last year for which figures were available.

Russia’s age-old taste for vodka _ in often incapacitating amounts _ is the subject of both national shame and pride. The figure of the inept but good-hearted drunk is a standard.

Vodka is not just drunk; it is used for medicine, bribes _ even to clean windshields on freezing days. Social convention does not permit an opened bottle to be left unfinished.

Gorbachev’s much-maligned efforts to curb consumption in 1985 and 1986 did slow it significantly _ by 26 percent in 1986, according to Nemtsov. But consumption began steadily rising again, and by 1993 had returned to 1984 levels, he said.

The state used to have a monopoly on alcohol production and sales. Now all types of foreign and local alcohol can be bought at street kiosks and the price of drink has plummeted compared to other goods.

``Before all the changes, 10 years ago, a bottle of vodka cost two or three times more than a kilogram of sausage, but now it costs two or three times less than the same kilogram of sausage,″ Nemtsov said.

Other changes brought by market forces include advertising _ which analysts say is attracting more women and teen-agers to drink _ and the decline of free health-care services. The dry-out tanks where Soviet police used to put drunks have largely disappeared.

Add to that the post-Soviet pressures many Russians feel from lost savings, unemployment, family breakdown, environmental degradation and general uncertainty about the future.

As the newspaper Izvestia put it on page one recently: ``We Don’t Need War _ Alcohol is Killing Us.″

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