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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Minister: Beer Threat Looming

The Health Ministry on Tuesday called for tough curbs to be placed on beer to counter what it said was a deadly addiction sweeping the nation.

Deputy Health Minister Gennady Onishchenko warned that Russians have been buying into advertising touting the frothy beverage as a healthy alternative to the traditional favorite vodka, but instead of picking beer over vodka they are drinking both at a frenetic pace.

"A sea of beer has been added to the 14 liters of alcohol consumed in Russia per capita annually," Onishchenko told a news conference.

Beer by law is not considered an alcoholic beverage.

Slamming the country's growing fondness for beer as a looming addiction problem, Onishchenko said the government must take steps to ban beer television commercials, outlaw brands that have an alcohol content of 6 percent or higher, and recategorize stronger beers as alcoholic drinks.

Beer producers immediately expressed alarmed over Onishchenko's remarks, saying he is trying to ruin a prospering industry.

The deputy health minister is also head of the State Health Inspectorate, which has the authority to shut down any brewery over health concerns with the wave of its hand.

Onishchenko just last month ordered that health inspectors examine the quality of beer made at all of the nation's breweries and report back to the ministry by June.

In recent years the local beer market has been one of the few booming sectors in Russia, growing by 20 percent to 22 percent in 2000 alone. Consumption shot up by 10 percent to 30 percent a year through much of the 1990s.

But with about 30 liters of beer consumed per capita per year, Russia is still well behind the United States and many European countries.

Onishchenko said that while Russia is following a global trend in developing a taste for drinks with weaker levels of alcohol but, unlike in the West, the nation's love for vodka is not declining as its appetite for beer grows.

Onishchenko said aggressive television commercials that often target youth are to blame for growing beer consumption. As a result, he added, beer consumers have become increasingly younger in recent years.

"Now even children and teenagers drink this seemingly nonalcoholic drink," he said.

"Beer, seemingly harmless and even useful according to the commercials, is becoming women's favorite drink. Even pregnant women drink it and that is how a beer alcoholic is formed in the mother's womb," he added.

Beer producers reacted angrily, with some accusing Onishchenko of incompetence and others calling for him to resign.

"We have not found a single worthy argument in his statements," said Vyacheslav Mamontov of the Russian Brewers Union.

Mamontov said the deputy health minister's comments could destabilize the beer market.

"The producers have just started to calm down over the stability on the market," he said.

Nadezhda Vinogradova, spokeswoman at the nation's largest brewer, Baltika, went even further.

"He is making an anti-state and anti-people policy against a progressively developing industry," she said by telephone from St. Petersburg.

Baltika is controlled by the Swedish-Finnish giant Baltic Beverages Holding.

But breweries may not have to fight off new regulations from the Health Ministry any time soon.

Legislation over beer is unclear. The law calls for special legislation to be enacted for beer, but none has yet been approved.

The Health Ministry would also have to gain the approval of a number of governmental bodies — including the Anti-Monopoly Ministry, which oversees television advertising — if any of its proposals are to go into force.

Sergei Puzyrevsky of the Anti-Monopoly Ministry said his ministry's hands are tied about amending advertising laws over beer because the legal status of the beverage is unclear.

Andrei Ivanov, consumer goods analyst at Troika Dialog, said the industry is in no danger from the health authorities as long as there is no legislature regulating the quality and amount of alcohol contained in beer.

"On the other hand, if the health officials get serious about production checks, the market leaders will only win and the consolidation of the industry will speed up," Ivanov said.