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Alcohol on the agenda
« on: July 22, 2009, 09:30:24 AM »
[color=green]Alcohol on the agenda[/color]

by Nathan Toohey

Amid mounting calls to fight widespread alcoholism by restricting access to alcoholic beverages, the liquor industry found an unlikely supporter in the form of the capital's conservative leader. A bill submitted by Mayor Yury Luzhkov to the City Duma would make getting a Moscow retail liquor licence less difficult. The draft bill was passed in its first reading on Wednesday.

"This law will reduce the costs that existed in law No. 64 [alcohol licensing law], eases access to a licence and simplifies the procedure for applying for a licence," RIA Novosti quoted the deputy head of the Consumer Services Department, Vladimir Slepak, as saying at a meeting of the City Duma.

In particular, the bill allows for a licence to sell beverages below 15 per cent alcohol content to be granted without the applicant having to provide a property valuation from the Technical Inventory Bureau, a floor plan of the building or documents confirming the installation of an alarm system. Other hurdles to be eliminated include the need to receive an agreement for the licence from the local administrative district prefect. Reregistering the licence would be made easier and the procedure for extending and paying for the licence would be changed. The list of reasons for cancelling a licence would be cut.

"The bill is not only intended to support entrepreneurs, but to help them more accurately follow the rules concerning the retail sale of alcoholic beverages," said Slepak.

The mayor will face some staunch opponents in his drive to provide Muscovites with easier access to beer and wine, however, as a range of prominent social, religious and health industry leaders have come out in favour of rolling back Russia's freewheeling approach to liquor controls.

Since the Soviet period, with its notorious restrictions on alcohol sales, alcohol consumption has risen sharply. The Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Rights says alcohol consumption has risen from 5.38 litres of pure ethanol per year per person in 1990 to 10.1 litres in 2007. Experts put the figure even higher at almost 18 litres.

Earlier this year, the 13th Worldwide Russian People's Council, a international public organisation and forum headed by the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Kirill, called for far-reaching restrictions to be placed on alcohol sales. Among the provisions in its resolution titled "Necessary Measures for the Defence Against the Threat of Alcohol" is the banning of sales of any alcoholic beverages from kiosks.

"We are calling for a complete ban on sales of alcoholic beverages, including beer, from kiosks and stalls where any teenager, one on one with the salesperson, can reach an agreement on anything," said Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), one of the authors of the programme. Among other restrictions, the plan calls for hard liquor sales outside bars and restaurants to be restricted to between 11 am and 7 pm. "In countries which we consider civilised, this is how it works," said Tikhon.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church's information department, Vladimir Legoid, called for the historical myth that Russians always liked to drink to be dispelled.

"Vodka - strong alcohol - was not always drunk in Rus," said Legoid. "Vodka was actually invented by the Arabs in the 9th century. And before the 15th-16th century there was no strong alcohol in Rus."

Last month, the Public Chamber produced a paper calling for the introduction of a state monopoly on retail alcohol sales, according to a report published in Kommersant. Many of its other proposed restrictions mirrored those called for by the Worldwide Russian People's Council, including a ban on alcohol sales in the mornings, at night and on weekends, increasing fines for underage liquor sales and reducing the number of establishments allowed to sell alcohol. The plans also call for excise tariffs on alcohol to be raised.

Russia's chief sanitary inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, backed calls to raise excise tariffs on alcohol.

"Raising excise tariffs on alcohol production is an internationally proven preventative measure," said Onishchenko. "Cheap access to alcohol always leads to a lowering of the starting age for alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, in our Russian reality, the only factor that influences access to alcohol is money and not age barriers or trading hours. The less money needed to acquire this poison, the more people drink."

Onishchenko conceded, however, that boosting prices was not the answer in itself. "I consider this measure justified," said Onishchenko, referring to the raising of excise tariffs. "Alcohol is very cheap compared to Soviet times. However, you always need to remember that these steps must be taken as part of a whole package of measures. Just raising excise tariffs is not a panacea."

Critics have suggested that the drive to raise excise tariffs has less to do with the nation's physical well-being and more to do with the health of the federal budget, which has seen its revenues sink since the onset of the financial crisis last year. Despite excise tariffs having been raised by 10 per cent this year, tariff revenues have actually fallen.

"In the first five months of 2009, the volume of excise tariffs accrued has fallen by 7.6 per cent in comparison to the same period as last year, while the volume of actual excise tariffs received into the Russian budget has fallen by 12.8 per cent," said First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov. "It's important that this sector works legally, that products cost as much as they should cost with the excise tariff included. The revenue should not fall into the shadow economy or corruption, as it is at present - it should be going into the budget, increasing pensions and benefits - it is extremely important to maintain revenue in these crisis conditions."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stepped into the debate last week when he dismissed oversimplified solutions to the nation's drinking problems.

"We don't need to ban or unreasonably raise prices on all alcoholic products, but most of all promote a healthy lifestyle," said Putin. "Of course, it's not a natural or normal situation when beer costs less than drinking water."

President Dmitry Medvedev said that nation's alcohol consumption, at 18 litres of pure spirit per person per year, was shocking. "This is approximately 50 bottles of vodka for every person in the country, including infants - that's a monstrous number," said Medvedev earlier this month when addressing the Seliger 2009 forum via a video link-up.

[b]Nonetheless, Medvedev said that returning Soviet-style restrictions would not work. "This is a difficult matter, but it cannot be solved with the help of stupid bans," said Medvedev. He added that the solution lay in using a wide range of modern, normal programmes that provided for normal incomes and normal recreation, "allowing people to relax civilly and not simply just go to a shop and buy a bottle and sit stupidly in the kitchen watching television through bloodshot eyes." [/b]