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New Russian laws: no chance of a drink or a smoke

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Throughout Russia’s history its rulers have attempted to curtail the consumption of alcohol and/or tobacco. Gorbachev had little success in the 1980s; will this year's new laws have any more success, asks Mikhail Loginov? 

Mikhail Loginov
21 March 2013

The town of Vologda is a regional administrative centre in the north of Russia. 15 years ago a 24-hour shop appeared in an outlying area on the edge of town with apartment blocks built in the early 1960s, during Khrushchev’s time. The residents were delighted, though it was just an old railway carriage, wallpapered, with a counter and a sign outside the door ’24 hours’.

The sign is still there, but there’s a paper on the door telling customers that ‘From 1 March the shop will be open from 9am to 9pm.’ There’s a very simple reason for this. As shop assistant Elena explains, most of the night time visitors only bought beer, but from 1 March 2013 the sale of alcoholic drinks between 11pm and 8am is prohibited throughout Russia. The toughest anti-tobacco laws ever seen in Russia came into effect at the same time.

Winter without vodka and spring time without cigarettes

At New Year people give each other presents. The Russians are no exception to this rule, but this year the gift was an unpleasant one. The regulations concerning the sale of spirits have been tightened up from 1 January. Previously any spirits more than 15° proof could not be sold between 11pm and 8am. This varied across the regions: in some, Tula for instance, night time sales of spirits continued unabated, whereas in Chechnya President Kadyrov decreed that spirits could only be sold from 8am to 10am. In some regions the degree permitted was different: no more than 6° or, say, 8°. From 1 January every region or national republic is compelled to prohibit the sales of spirits from 11pm to 8am – including beer and light wine.

And it’s not only the hours that are limited. The outlet selling spirits must be no less than 25 sq.m. in rural areas and 50 sq.m. in towns. Spirits may not be sold in any mobile shops, which has created a special problem in some villages.

It has become expensive and difficult to buy vodka. A considerable hike in duties levied on alcoholic drinks has increased the minimum price of a bottle from 125 to 170 roubles [$4 to $5.50].

People who like a drink have been having problems since 1 January, but smokers are facing a succession of miseries. On 1 January the price of cigarettes, papirosy [a hollow cardboard tube extended by a thin cigarette paper tube with tobacco] and cigars increased by about 25%. In May street kiosks will no longer be able to sell cigarettes and from 1 July the anti-tobacco law will come into effect in Russia. Smoking in public places (bus stops, stations, trains, stadiums, restaurants) will be forbidden. Russians have always smoked in these places and thought nothing of it.

‘Don’t listen to the smokers!’

Street kiosks in Russia’s towns and cities are still selling cigarettes – to adults and to senior school children. They know they will only be able to do this until May and are somewhat anxious.

‘What will happen?’ asks Tamara, who has been selling cigarettes in a street kiosk for 12 years. ‘Whatever the kiosk owner tells us to do, that’ll be it. If he says to sell cigarettes, then we will and he’ll pay the fine. If he decides not to, then the kiosk will close down and we shall have to look for other work. Some people do buy lemonade or chewing gum here, but…’ The association OPORA Rossii [Rn. Support of Russia], which protects small businesses, agrees with Tamara. Its research shows that 40% of kiosks’ revenue comes from tobacco sales and 40% from beer. Some kiosks are closing down already, but this will enormously increase in May.

The vendors may be worried, but the smokers don’t know or don’t want to think about the upcoming ban. In the square outside Vologda railway station 2 out of 3 men are smoking. They smoke on the platforms, at the bus station, at bus and trolleybus stops. Anyone getting on a train will certainly smoke on the enclosed platforms between the carriages. Half the tables in the station restaurant have ashtrays on them and the waiters can’t believe that from 1 July they will have to take them off all the tables.

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Russia is one of the few countries where tobacco companies have enjoyed growing profits over recent years. The new law was met with fierce resistance from such companies. photo (cc) Flickr

‘They say we’ll all have to smoke in the street,’ says the doorman Andrey. ‘It’s quite nice in the summer, but what about the winter when it’s -30°? I’m not going to be chasing smokers outside in temperatures like that.’

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is regarded as the initiator of this attack on smokers. ‘The problem is so acute,’ he said in the summer of 2012 ‘that it cannot be solved by health promotion alone. We should not defer to the smokers.’ Meanwhile, the smokers themselves are not intending to pay any attention to the bans.

Vodka vans banned

When they were drawing up the law limiting the size of sales outlets permitted to sell spirits, its authors were no doubt thinking of a town or a large suburban settlement. Indeed, the Moscow region (also known as Podmoskovye) will have no problems with a ban on sales of vodka or beer in a small shop, because people can always go to a bigger shop. What the deputies failed to take into consideration is that in Russia, especially in the northern regions, there are many places with only a village shop selling lighters, soap, sweets and vodka. The nearest big shop is 30km away and most of the villagers don’t own cars so can’t therefore drive anywhere to buy these everyday consumer goods.

Deputies from the Leningrad region have tried to solve the problem. The region is bigger than Denmark and the Netherlands put together, but the area is much more sparsely populated. To ensure that the new law didn’t mean people in distant villages would be left without vodka, the deputies proposed setting up mobile shops in all-territory vans or lorries. Shops on wheels were a feature of Soviet times and they still exist. The deputies proposed granting them the right to sell vodka, but central government thought otherwise.

Experts then put forward 2 suggestions. Villages where neighbours live peacefully side by side will be able to form a kind of ‘vodka cooperative’: a person with a car can collect money from his neighbours and go to buy a crate of vodka. As not many Russians are able to put vodka away ‘for a rainy day’, these shopping trips will no doubt be fairly regular. But the other suggestion is even less credible: villagers will start brewing their own moonshine, an art that never disappeared even when factory vodka was more freely available. In the past moonshine was brewed from grain, but now sugar is used. There are no restrictions on mobile vans bringing sugar to the villages.

Calculating the losses

Ivan Sokolov works in the finance department of the regional authority. He considers that villagers in some 20 distant villages drinking their own homebrew will not result in financial loss, but budget receipts from the regional centre and towns will be significantly reduced.

Over a 2-month period about 100 kiosks and 10 small shops have closed down, which will result in a loss of tax receipts. In the regional centre, a shop assistant from a small shop has a chance of finding other work, but in a small town he will no doubt end up at the Labour Exchange and extra funds will have to be found for his unemployment benefit.

According to Sokolov, the clampdown on smoking will also result in losses. Many restaurants and cafes struggle to make ends meet. If smoking in them is not allowed and the ban is enforced, then there will be fewer clients and the establishment will be forced to close. Night clubs are also emptying. In the autumn young people will cheerfully go out to smoke, but in the winter, when they’ve got really cold once or twice, they will prefer having a party and dancing at home, where they can smoke without leaving the table.

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The Russian table - incomplete without a bottle or two. photo (cc) Flickr

Sokolov is naturally comforted by the fact that sales of spirits and cigarettes have not fallen away, but have actually slightly increased.

Gorbachev’s dangerous reputation

‘Hardly surprising,’ says Valerii Stephanov, a journalist on the regional newspaper. ‘People are buying spirits on a bigger scale than they did previously. They know they won’t be able to pop to the shop at night time, even for low alcohol beer so they buy some in reserve. This applies to people buying for large parties and to individuals. A person on the way home from work who feels like a beer will buy a bottle in a kiosk. If he goes to the supermarket, then he’ll buy at least 3 bottles or 1.5 litres in plastic packing. After all, who likes standing in line at the till?’

Stephanov started working on the paper at the beginning of the 1980s. He remembers Gorbachev’s first attempts at dealing with the problem of alcohol consumption and sees a difference between the 2 strategies. ‘The new measures are openly aimed at reducing the availability of alcoholic products, but this isn’t happening. Or not yet. The main consumers of vodka and beer are men and they finish work long before 11pm, so they buy more spirits than they would have if they could buy more later on. The high price of vodka has not yet started to bite: anyone feeling like a drink or having guests in for a traditional dinner will be more likely to economise on the starters than the drink. Relations who are not alcoholics will probably forgive minimum food, but not a table with no vodka. A ban on vodka sales after 7pm would be a completely different thing. But that would be harking back to the Gorbachev bans.’

There are, however, some similarities between the 1985 and 2013 attempts to curtail the consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

‘Deputies and government experts forget why people drink and smoke,’ says Stephanov. ‘Spirits and tobacco are primitive social anti-depressants. But they have proved to be effective and people in Russia – though more in the regions than in Moscow – are living in conditions of severe stress. Housing and utility payments regularly go up, as do prices. But not salaries. Budget cuts mean that people are being made redundant in the public sector and the person to whom this happens suddenly and unexpectedly will have a drink and a cigarette while he considers what to do. If the price of vodka has increased by 50% and he’ll be fined for buying cigarettes in his usual place, then he could well react in an unpredictable way. I myself remember 1988, when there were no cigarettes in the town for 2 days. On the third day the crowd blocked off the central street.’

‘Tobacco riots’ have not been recorded in Russia yet, but at the beginning of 2013 Putin’s popularity rating, according to various sociological surveys, was hovering around 30-35%. That’s how much Russians trust their president. The politics of vodka and tobacco have played their part in this too. Although the main attack on smoking is thought to come from Dmitry Medvedev (whose popularity rating is less than 3%), it is traditional in Russia to consider that, for decisions affecting everyone in a major way, the buck stops with the head of state. Consumption figures for vodka and cigarettes may have fallen off since the end of the 20th century, but not by much.

 

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