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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Keep Hold Of State on Vodka Sales

After years of fiddling with ineffective controls and failing to follow through on promised "crackdowns," the government is at last taking a serious, commendable and -- potentially -- very effective step toward regulating the sale of vodka and other hard spirits. Both tax revenues and the nation's health can benefit from the effort.


Under a decree signed by the president, all kiosks would be banned outright from selling alcohol other than beer and wine as of July 1. With vastly fewer sales points, the availability of Russia's national drink then could be restricted to officially licensed retailers. Such was the situation in the Soviet era, when vodka was available legally only through state stores.


This is one case where a return to the past would be no bad thing. Virtually every developed country maintains strict control over liquor sales by licensing retailers and restricting hours of operation and location; yet in Russia, with kiosks everywhere, practically anybody can buy booze at any place at any time from anyone. Curbing the number and the nature of outlets where liquor is sold would simply be a civilizing step that would put Russia in line with the rest of the world.


If implemented and enforced -- two big ifs, given the government's track record -- the decree would be far more effective than previous efforts to control sales and taxation through import quotas, licensing and minimum price levels. Eliminating kiosk vendors entirely would simplify regulation -- if local authorities follow through -- by drastically reducing the number of points of sale.


Small retailers make an easy target, but ministers also should not neglect the production and import aspects of the alcohol trade. On the other hand, excessively heavy-handed controls and punitive taxation is bound to drive drinkers to the black market and homemade brew, which also thrived in the Soviet era.


It would be nice to think that the government is acting out of concern for the health of its citizens: Studies have shown a direct link between the availability and cost and the consumption of alcohol. The appalling state of the nation's health is underlined in a new report by a presidential commission that shows falling births, rising deaths and declining life expectancy. Alcohol is a major culprit.


In fact, it is the government's desperate need for revenue that is driving the latest decree. Levies on alcohol used to comprise more than a quarter of the state budget, but have tapered off to near nothing as the market has become more and more unregulated. To get the taxes it is due on each bottle, the state sees little alternative but to keep a firm hand over who sells it.


The fiscal motive, however, makes this decree no less worthy.