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As Teens Hoist Beer's Popularity, Russia Moves to Curb Ads

Alarmed at youthful drinking, lawmakers approve strict limits on marketing brews.

August 06, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Here in the land of Stolichnaya, it may be that vodka still fuels the Russian soul. But it's beer that presides over the popular imagination.

Doubters need go no further than Pushkin Square, where huge neon shrines to Nevskoye, PIT and Warsteiner hover over the rooftops. Or a public park -- where beer logos decorate the umbrella tables and empty brown bottles spill out of the garbage cans, roll provocatively down the sidewalks and beckon from under the trees.

To turn on the television in Russia is to be bombarded with images of happy young people socializing over pivo. Beer, these messages suggest, is the drink of scientists, polar bears (polar bears?) and the cleverest young man in any crowd. Zolotaya Bochka's ad slogan -- "Nado chashche vstrechatsya!" or "We should be seeing each other more often!" -- is what hip, young Russians say when an acquaintance seems hopelessly out of touch with the goings-on in another's life.

But the lower house of Russia's parliament -- alarmed at the recent steep increase in youthful beer drinking -- dealt a blow to popular culture Thursday when it approved sharp, new restrictions on beer advertising, perhaps the first significant limits in the post-Soviet era.

Under the bill, scheduled for final ratification Sunday by the Federation Council, parliament's upper house, beer ads will be banned on television from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and in publications geared to youth, health or sports. Ads cannot use images of people and animals (no more polar bears) or target adolescents. Beer billboards will be banned within 100 yards of sports stadiums.

Russian lawmakers say they are likely to go further in the next few months, with proposed legislation that would prohibit the sale of beer to minors. Under current law, people of any age can buy beer -- and often do -- at grocery stores, sidewalk kiosks and wherever else it is sold.

"Clearly it is a problem. All you have to do is take a stroll in Manezh Square on a Friday evening, and you'll see it for yourself: groups of young people hanging around. They each donate money ... and [one guy] goes and gets 20 bottles of beer," said Vladimir Medinsky, deputy head of the parliament committee on economy, politics and tourism.

"They specifically aim these ads at young people 13 to 30 who haven't formed their preferences," he said. "It makes no sense for them to try to convince an old man to drink beer. He's been drinking vodka all his life, and he'll never change."

Russia's battles with its alcohol demons go back through the nation's history, and periodic attempts to subdue vodka's dominion -- most recently, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's unpopular and short-lived vodka controls -- are remembered with derision.

Through the Soviet years, beer was an ugly cousin. Soviet beer was hard to get and hardly worth the effort. Young people caught drinking on the street would have been hammered by a babushka's umbrella or arrested by the KGB.

But all that has changed, especially in the last five years. New Russian beers are decent, and there are plenty of imports. Beer gardens have sprung up along Moscow sidewalks, and young Russian executives are as likely to be holding a mug as a shot glass when eating pickled cucumbers.

And teenagers strolling down the sidewalk with beer cans in hand, sitting in groups on a public square drinking beer, or clutching their brews on the street around a mournful guitar player, are now among Moscow's most common sights.

The reason, besides better beer, is marketing. A blitz of TV and print ads, billboards, trendy websites, prizes and sports sponsorships have had the predictable result of rocketing beer sales, especially among young people.

Per-capita beer consumption in Moscow is more than 19 gallons a year, not as high as in the United States or Germany, but up 38% since 1999.

Overall, Russia's alcohol consumption is among the highest in the world, and hard liquor such as vodka still accounts for 74% of the market. According to some estimates, one in every seven Russians is an alcoholic, and as many as 22,000 children under 14 are considered addicted to alcohol or drugs.

In part because of alcohol, life expectancy for Russian men has declined to 59 years. Traffic accidents, liver illness, drownings and industrial accidents are routinely blamed on alcohol. So is crime -- last month, a 21-year-old Muscovite who had been drinking all day was arrested for barbecuing and eating his landlord's dog.

"Every other murder is committed after alcohol consumption," said Yelena Zazimova, a Moscow police spokeswoman. "The mechanics are usually the same: First people consume alcohol together, then they start quarreling, remember some old grievances, and everything ends with a dead body on the floor."

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