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St. Petersburg's Cultural Warrior Takes Aim At Fast Food

  • Tom Balmforth

A St. Petersburg lawmaker has launched an assault against fast food in the city. saying it should come with a health warning. (file photo)

A St. Petersburg lawmaker has launched an assault against fast food in the city. saying it should come with a health warning. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- He gained renown as the champion of a law against "gay propaganda." He memorably crossed swords with Madonna. And now Vitaly Milonov has a new bone to pick -- fast food.

Milonov, a lawmaker in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, is calling for national legislation to regulate the quality of Russian food and impose limits on the amount of unsaturated fat present in foodstuffs, high levels of which can contribute to heart disease.

On June 5, the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly passed the first reading of a bill to this effect. It will soon be sent on to the Russian State Duma for consideration at the national level.

The legislation proposes outlawing the production, import, and trade of food containing over 2 percent trans fatty acids. Milonov is also calling for such foods to contain a health warning. He singled out fast food restaurants as the worst offenders and expressed hope that his initiative would improve diets.

Milonov has also proposed requiring restaurants to label the nutritional value of food on menus.

"Unfortunately, the fast food business does not answer [for its actions]," he told RFE/RL. "On the one hand, they gather money for an orphanage, but on the other hand they ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of children by using dangerous trans fats to make special meals that are targeting children."

Western Inspiration

Milonov indicated that he drew inspiration for his proposal from similar dietary campaigns against fatty foods in the West.

"It's not an initiative to limit fast food in the country," he said. "It's an initiative to limit the use of trans fats in fast food in our country. I was inspired by the wave of civic activity in Great Britain during the Olympics. I am joining the movement that had the slogan: 'Winners don't eat these dinners.' I believe it's a correct slogan. If an international company is using trans fats to make food then they should have to make a choice: either they switch to using natural ingredients that aren't modified, or else they aren't going to produce it because it is very dangerous for people's health, especially for children.”

In 2008, at the initiative of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City barred restaurants from using hydrogenated vegetable oil in cooking in an effort to combat trans fats. Bloomberg has since sought to target soft drinks with a high sugar content.

Milonov’s legislative effort in St. Petersburg comes amid some other -- often eccentric -- campaigns in Russia’s regions to trim waistlines.

Dietary Assault

This week, Vasily Bochkaryov, the governor of Penza Oblast, warned local officials in his entourage to lose weight -- or else lose their jobs. In comments carried by the PenzaNews agency, Bochkaryov told his health minister: "I am ordering you to lose 16 kilograms this year."

To the sports minister, he continued his dietary assault: "You have two months. If you haven’t lost weight and got yourself together then leave government! How can you be that pot-bellied with a job on the sports committee?"

According to research published in September, the rate of coronary heart disease deaths in Russian men dropped significantly between 2003 and 2009. But, at 251 deaths per 100,000 Russians, the rate is still considered high in comparison with other European countries.

Milonov is also the controversial author of divisive legislation in St. Petersburg that outlawed public displays of vaguely defined "gay propaganda." The law was subsequently adopted in many Russian regions and passed on a national level by the State Duma in January.

Critics say the law has contributed to a rise in homophobia in Russia. Two men were recently brutally murdered in two separate homophobic attacks.

The bill has been widely criticized in the West and it even precipitated a spat between the Petersburg lawmaker and pop star Madonna during her tour of Russia last year.
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at