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Holiday Sobriety: 'There Is No Worse Enemy For A Russian Than Himself'

The WHO says that 1-in-5 Russian men will die due to alcohol abuse. (file photo)
The WHO says that 1-in-5 Russian men will die due to alcohol abuse. (file photo)
"Ten days of horror."

That's what Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief health inspector, calls the traditional holiday period in the country, which encompasses New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and Orthodox Christmas on January 7.

He's referring to Russians' penchant for imbibing mass quantities of alchohol during the festive season. And not just during the holidays.

Russians can claim the fourth-highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita in the world, according to the World Health Organization -- almost 16 liters of pure ethyl alcohol consumed per person among adults 15 years of age or older in 2011. (Moldova came in first with 18.2 liters, followed by the Czech Republic with 16.4, and Hungary with 16.2.)

This week, Onishchenko, the head of Russia's Federal Consumer Rights and Health Supervisory Service, urged his fellow countrymen -- especially those with children -- to lay off the liquor:
"Most of our citizens will be left to their own devices. And there is no worse enemy for a Russian than himself.… You will be greeting the New Year with your family and, as head of the family, you will be setting a bad example. Or are you not happy to be with your family?"

He said sober men had a special “charisma” that would be felt by their family members and stressed that there were enough positive emotions and “stimulants for a good mood” in family life without adding alcohol to the mix.

As the Russian news agency RIA Novosti notes, the 62-year-old Onishchenko is famous for being able to find a public-health angle in almost any story:
He weighed in on punk band Pussy Riot’s trial in August, and managed to come up with criticism of anti-Kremlin rallies in Moscow last winter by warning that protesters will risk their health by gathering outside in the cold.

Also in August, amid an anti-drink-driving campaign, he warned his countrymen not to get behind the wheel if they had drunk kefir, a fermented dairy product with less than one percent alcohol.

“Are you going to get behind the wheel, or drink kefir?" he said, triggering a storm of online mockery.

Last December, ahead of a mass protest in Moscow against alleged vote-rigging in favor of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, Onishchenko warned Russians against attending, saying they would be in danger of catching a cold.

But Onishchenko appears to have the full support of his boss, President Vladimir Putin, who has been vocal in his efforts to reduce Russia's population decline by encouraging healthier lifestyles.

Gennady Onishchenko
Gennady Onishchenko
A bill being considered in parliament would outlaw smoking in public places from 2015 while also increasing taxes on tobacco. The price of vodka was increased this year with plans for further increases. Duties on beer have also risen.

Putin's initiatives call to mind Mikhail Gorbachev's similar -- but ill-fated -- attempts, starting in 1985 when he became general secretary of the Communist Party, to curb the the consumption of vodka and other hard liquor in the Soviet Union by restricting sales and increasing prices.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin took a markedly different approach, infamously appearing drunk in public on numerous occasions:

As Bloomberg News reports, however, Putin's efforts appear to be having some effect:
The Health Ministry says smoking levels may be cut in half as a result of the anti-tobacco law and planned tax increases for cigarettes in Russia, where a pack of Marlboros sells for about $2. The aim is to bring prices to European levels by 2015.

Russia cut alcohol consumption to 15 liters from 18 liters per capita in the last two years, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov said in December [2011]. The government wants to reduce it to at least 8 liters by 2020, the WHO’s accepted consumption level.

Starting on January 1, kiosks in Russia will be prohibited from selling beer. The second reading of the antismoking bill is expected to occur in the State Duma early next year.

-- Grant Podelco

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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