Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has come up with a new and intriguing method of fighting alcohol abuse: Drink more wine.
This is a plan that I (and virtually everyone I know) can get behind and promote with enthusiasm. It also makes more sense than anything the Russians have said in my lifetime. “Winemaking is one of the sectors that should be developed and contribute to the eradication of alcoholism,” he observed recently. “Countries where this sector is strong have no problems with alcohol abuse—problems with alcohol abuse stem from ‘other drinks’.”
Historically, this is not exactly true. France had epidemic levels of alcoholism until recently, when they passed their Draconian laws against drinking and driving. During the campaign to ban absinthe in the early years of the 20th century, however, beer and wine were not targets of the reformers’ zeal (wine producers had a powerful and well-funded lobby, which may explain the exemption). Even the most ardent Neo-Prohibitionist has to admit that wine consumption, in moderation, has some very beneficial effects on health.
The Russians, of course, tend not to do anything in moderation. Alcoholism has been a major health problem for centuries. Taxation on vodka is also a major source of government revenue, which explains why politicians are usually loathe to target it. Vodka is enormously popular for many reasons, not least of which because it is cheap—a liter of vodka costs roughly half as much as a bottle of imported wine. Estimates of alcohol-related deaths in adult males range as high as 50%.
Encouraging wine-drinking in Russia would be easier if politics didn’t get in the way. In 2006, the country banned wine imports from the former Soviet states of Georgia and Moldova. Even though some Moldovan wines have won awards in international competitions, a leading Russian official remarked that it “should be used to paint fences” (I can think of a number of domestic wines that fall into that category). By his statements and policies, Medvedev undoubtedly hopes to stimulate the Russian wine industry. Until he succeeds, those fences will be cracked and peeling.