Russia's Rabid Liquor Debate: Is Budweiser a Beverage or a Food?

By Dirk Hanson 04/05/11

After 300 years, Russia's Kremlin is preparing  to engage in a fierce, long-awaited debate. Is beer an alcoholic beverage or a food?

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Russian having dinner.
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Russia's parliament took a bold step into reality recently, when the Kremlin agreed to introduced a bill that sought to classify beer as an alcoholic beverage, rather than as a food. You may be forgiven for assuming that this revolutionary act took place several centuries ago. But the beer bill was introduced in the Kremlin just last month, eliciting an outcry of controversy. Oddly enough, while many Americans can't even purchase beer on a Sunday, the Russians have always classified beer as a food rather than an alcoholic beverage--a neat trick that allowed them to evade troublesome marketing issues, like alcohol advertising, bottle size, night-time sales, and sales to minors, according to the UK Telegraph. Russia, which is home to a larger number of alcoholics per capita than almost any nation in the world, has seen its beer sales triple over the past 15 years.  But in a country where vodka is the national drink, beer has traditionally been viewed as a nerdy non-alcoholic beverage, along the lines of Gatorade or Diet Coke. Of course, the Russian's famous love of liquor has not left them unscathed. At 32 pints of pure alcohol per year, the average Russian citizen exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended yearly maximum alcohol allowance by a factor of two. But despite growing protests by national anti-alcohol groups, the government has generally ignored the country's growing drinking problems. (It's probably no coincidence that two of the nation's most powerful recent Presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Brezhnev,  made no secret of their own alcoholic excesses). In recent years, however, the Russian government, under the leadershiip of former President Vladimir Putin—a former KGB kingpin and total teetotaler--decided to crack down on the nation's alcohol problem, embarrassed by the worldwide perception that Russia is a nation of alkies. The current bill to classify beer as an alcoholic beverage rather than a food was introduced by Russian President (and Putin patsy) Dmitry Medvedev, who recently took to the airwaves to denounce the nation’s drinking problem as  “a national disaster.” The bill will not be officially debated in the Kremlin until mid-April. And despite its high-powered supporters, its passage is far from certain. "Alcohol streams through the bloodstream of Russia," fumed an aging parliamentarian on the floor of the Kremlin when the bill was first introduced. "Anyone who seeks to disrupt Russia's right to consume alcohol will be met with remarkable resistance."

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]