Facts: Since 2010, Russia has been consistently pursuing an anti-alcohol policy. Its goal is to reduce the burden of disease and deaths due to alcohol consumption. The measures taken have included hikes in prices, as well as curfews for alcohol sales during the evening and night time. The official figures show that, over the last decade the population has started drinking less, leaning towards wine and beer instead of vodka.
Implications: However, the official data is far from comprehensive. Medical findings may come in handy when estimating cumulative alcohol consumption. Even though anti-alcohol policy has yielded some positive results, at this new stage, the authorities should launch a crackdown on illegal alcohol and vary the approaches depending on patterns of regional alcohol consumption.
HSE University economists analyzed two data sets for Russian regions in 2010-2016: the official statistics of the Russian Statistics Agency on alcohol sales and estimates of unregistered alcohol consumption modeled by the study’s authors relying on the Ministry of Health’s own methodology. It appeared to be that, despite a steady decline in alcohol consumption in the country, it varies greatly from region to region (from 1.1 up to 17-20+ liters of pure alcohol per adult). Moreover, unlicensed alcohol still remains a huge problem, specifically in those regions where people prefer stronger alcohol. On average, adult Russians drink nine liters of registered alcohol per year (in terms of pure alcohol) and six liters of unregistered beverages. This research was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.
According to the definition of the World Health Organization, unregistered alcohol includes all homemade beverages (in Russia, that would usually be home-distilled vodka), prohibited alcohol (‘usual’ strong drinks like vodka, cognac, etc., manufactured illegally, i.e. without excise stamps and taxpaying), and various substitutes. All these products are characterized by their high content of ethanol, as well as toxic admixtures.
Despite all the restrictive measures taken by the authorities, Russia still remains one of the most active alcohol consumers in the world. Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption is among the most common reasons for the low life expectancy among men. Nevertheless, a positive trend emerged in the mid-2000s. According to the figures provided by the WHO, the sharpest decrease in alcohol consumption in the country was recorded in 2005-2016—from 18.7 down to 11.7 liters of ethyl alcohol per member of adult population.
The preferences of Russians changed over time, too. According to Russian Statistics Agency, vodka constituted 81.4% of total alcohol sales back in 1995, and only 36.4% in 2018. The share of beer consumption also grew over the same period from 12.8% up to 43.3%, just like the share of other beverages (primarily, wine)—from 5.8% up to 20.3%.
One of the key factors for reduced alcohol consumption and its updated pattern are the measures gradually introduced by the government. For example, following 2009, excise taxes on alcohol were gradually increased, along with prices shortly thereafter. In 2011, mandatory constraints were introduced on alcohol sales in the evening and at night. Prior to that, Russian regions could independently impose restrictions at their own discretion or not introduce them at all. The studies have shown that the regions with the more stringent measures have demonstrated more significantly reduced alcohol consumption.
The anti-alcohol policy in Russia now is rather versatile: minimum retail prices for strong alcohol and the restrictions imposed on alcohol sales during the evening, night, and morning. According to the authors of the study, in 2016, 28 out of 83 regions with 45% of the country's population applied uniform “milder” federal rules prohibiting sales from 11pm to 8pm. All other regions introduced stricter schedules for alcohol sales.
Therefore, state anti-alcohol policy has led to a partial success, namely, reduced consumption of registered alcohol. However, a major part of the regional alcohol markets still remains in the shadows, with people still consuming unregistered alcohol.
Apart from that, a distinctive feature of Russia is a diverse ethnic make-up in different regions; their geographic, climate, and economic conditions that all have a major impact on both variability and quantitative characteristics of the population's ‘drinking’ preferences and strong alcohol share in the consumption pattern. Therefore, it is important to understand what is going on with the officially registered volumes and real alcohol consumption (estimated according to indirect data) depending on a region.
The researchers analyzed data on alcohol consumption per capita in 78 Russian regions in 2010-2016 among citizens aged 15 years and older. Two region-based data sets were used for the research purposes: official statistics by the Russian Statistics Agency on alcohol sales per region and the findings by the Federal Medical Research Center for Psychiatry and Addictology named after V. Serbskiy on alcoholic psychosis and the Statistical Agency's data on mortality from external causes. The first data set captured the officially registered level of alcohol consumption, while the second one served as the basis for modeling its actual or real level. Based on the data collected using the assessment model, the volumes of unregistered alcohol consumption were thus evaluated.
Using the resulting data, the researchers built an econometric model that allowed them to assess how various factors affect the overall level of alcohol consumption in different regions. These factors were preference for strong drinks, vodka prices, climate, daily duration of permitted legal alcohol sale, citizens' average monthly income, the social, economic, and demographic characteristics of the region (e.g., urban population predominance, unemployment rate, etc.).
Alcohol consumption appears to vary greatly from region to region. For instance, the volume of registered alcohol ranged from 1.1 up to 17.8 liters, and unregistered alcohol—from almost zero up to 21 liters of pure alcohol per adult. Russians drink on average about nine liters of registered and six liters of unregistered alcohol in terms of pure alcohol per year, which amounts to 15 liters in total.
The situation with unregistered alcohol also varies a lot from region to region. For example, back in 2010, Moscow, the Moscow Region, and St. Petersburg had the lowest (approaching zero) rates of unregistered alcohol consumption. The highest rate was found in the Chukotka Autonomous District, namely 21.2 liters.
Although the regional averages steadily declined, they were still uneven. As a result, economists applied the WHO scale to divide the regions into six groups according to the alcohol consumption level. It turned out that the number of the heavy-drinking regions—from 10 liters of ethyl alcohol per adult per year—decreased from 47 in 2010 down to 10 in 2016 (registered alcohol was only considered). Meanwhile, the number of regions characterized by a high total consumption (registered and unregistered alcohol) decreased over the same time from 73 down to 66.
The lowest alcohol consumption rate is specific for the European part of Russia, including the regions with a Muslim majority (Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino Balkariya, Adygea, and Dagestan). The highest drinking regions (10 liters or more of registered alcohol) are all located primarily in the north of the European part of Russia and in the Far East. However, the authors note that high levels of ‘legal’ alcohol consumption were also recorded in Moscow and the Moscow Region in 2010–2016, in St. Petersburg in 2010–2013, and in the Leningrad Region in 2010–2015.
The authors were able to reach the following conclusions:
The higher the price of vodka in a region, the lower the consumption of registered alcohol and the higher the consumption of unregistered products;
Extension of hours for alcohol sales by 1% resulted in an almost equal decrease in unregistered alcohol consumption, but this had no major overall impact on the popularity of legal alcohol;
The share of the working-age population among adults is the most critical factor associated with alcohol addiction: its increase by 1% results in a decrease of registered alcohol consumption by 3.3% and an increase in unregistered alcohol by 23%. This supports previous research findings, stating that young people drink lessand prefer beer or wine to stronger beverages;
An increase in the share of the urban population by 1% has resulted in an increase in registered alcohol consumption by 2%;
The coefficients of the independent variable—the average temperature in January—turned out to be statistically insignificant, i.e., the climate does not really affect alcohol consumption;
The unemployment rate has no impact on alcohol consumption;
In regions where the population prefers stronger beverages, consumption of both registered and unregistered alcohol is usually higher.
According to the authors, their findings show that the anti-alcohol policy in Russia needs to be consistent in its implementation. There are two key points here. Since the share of strong alcohol determines the overall level of alcohol consumption in a region per capita in terms of pure alcohol, it should be made less and less accessible. The most essential tool is further boosting prices. ‘To replace vodka, ethyl alcohol in strong drinks must be taxed higher than beer and wine,’ the authors comment.
Moreover, the researchers believe that regions where people prefer strong drinks, should extend evening/nighttime restrictions, as well as reduce the total number of stores selling alcohol. However, they note that such a clampdown can affect the consumption of registered and unregistered alcohol in different ways. As soon as the registered alcohol becomes less affordable, the consumption of the latter may skyrocket in reaction to the imposed restrictions. Therefore, together with economic and administrative restrictions on alcohol sales, special tools and system-based policies are essential to dealing with the shadow economy.
In addition, Russia’s anti-alcohol policy should take into account economic cycles. A new study by economists at HSE University demonstrates that, during the years of economic recession and declining incomes, unregistered alcohol becomes especially popular.