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Opinion: Why a $3 bottle of vodka won't cut it

If state leaders truly cared about combating Russia's drinking problem, they would try to change attitudes โ€” not price tags.

An elderly Russian woman sells cheap vodka on a street in central Moscow, Sept. 22, 1998. (Reuters)

CHICO, California — Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is apparently under the impression that curing his country of its alcohol problem has a price — and that price is $3 a bottle.

On Jan. 1, a new law in Russia took effect that sets minimum prices for vodka. Now, the cheapest half-liter bottle costs 89 rubles ($3), nearly double what it cost previously. According to media reports at the time of its launch, the new law was meant to protect the health of Russians as well as curb the black market sale of imitation vodka that is often made with shoddy and harmful ingredients.

But in reality, the new law is a band-aid solution at best. Like many other such misguided efforts that have been tried in Russia, it doesn’t address the root of the problem: how hard-wired Russian society is for drinking.

Consuming on average 32 pints of pure alcohol per person per year, Russians are among the heaviest drinkers in the industrialized world. Their love of alcohol dates back more than a thousand years. In 986, Grand Prince Vladimir is said to have declared, “Drinking is the joy of Russia. We cannot do without it,” and adopted Christianity as the official religion of Russia supposedly because it was the only one that had no prohibition against drink.

Over the last several hundred years, alcohol has crept into the social, political and economic fabric of everyday life. As one 19th-century commentator put it: “When the Russian is born, when he marries or dies, when he goes to court or is reconciled, when he makes a new acquaintance or parts from an old friend, when he negotiates a purchase or sale, realizes a profit or suffers a loss — every activity is copiously baptized with vodka.”

However hyperbolic this assessment might be, it is true that alcohol lubricates nearly every social interaction among ordinary Russians, including and especially at work. In fact, a nation-wide study conducted in 1991 found that Russians drank more at work than at home or in bars.

The state benefits tremendously from the average Russian's attachment to drinking. Since the first appearance of taverns in Moscow in the 16th century, the Russian state has attempted to exercise political and fiscal control over the trade in spirits, ultimately establishing a monopoly over the production and sale of alcohol. By the end of the 19th century, alcohol revenues comprised about 40 percent of all state revenue.

And herein lies Medvedev’s dilemma: how to continue reaping the tremendous taxes gained from alcohol sales while also trying to reduce alcohol consumption (or appearing to try to do so). It is a dilemma every Russian leader has faced since the 19th century. And nearly every leader over the last hundred years has attempted to foster popular temperance to ill effect. (An exception is Boris Yeltsin, who notoriously got drunk and drove his car into the Moscow River, or wandered the streets of Washington, D.C. in his underwear.)