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© RIA Novosti. Alexander Vilf

Traveling sober

by Tai Adelaja at 16/04/2012 21:07

Russia’s love for booze took another hit this week, as the government moved to ban the sale of strong alcoholic beverages on passenger trains. A new regulation that took effect last month outlawed the sale of strong alcoholic beverages at catering facilities located in public transport and commuter trains, as well as on trains plying long distance routes. Experts say the measure, which is being touted by transportation officials as part of a radical overhaul of rail travel, would deny Russians the right to drink vodka while traveling, a favorite pastime for many since the Soviet times.

Vodka and alcoholic drinks stronger than 16.5 degrees will no longer be sold in the dining cars of passenger trains in Russia, the RBC Daily reported on Wednesday. The ban was originally contained in the state regulation of the alcohol market, which took effect in July of last year. However, suppliers of alcoholic drinks were only informed of the measure last month, prompting speculation that officials deliberately shelved the implementation of the controversial measure till well after the March 4 presidential elections.

Last year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a strong backing to new laws designed to regulate the sale of beer, alcopops and vodka, the country’s favorite alcoholic beverage, in an apparent effort to halt the country’s population decline. According to the Kremlin, Russians are among the world’s heaviest drinkers, with a consumption rate of 18 liters of pure alcohol per capita per year, more than double the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum. A report in The Lancet medical journal in June said alcoholrelated diseases caused more than half of all deaths of Russians aged 15 to 54 in the 1990s, and may have been responsible for the low overall life expectancy of the Russian male, which stands at just over 60.

Analysts said, however, that the current measure is likely to go down as another misstep in the Kremlin’s anti-alcohol campaign. Since the Soviet times, many Russians have come to savor the dining car – the only place where alcohol can be legally bought and consumed – as the high point of any train journey. Russian Railways currently operates approximately 700 railroad dining cars on its national and international routes. At least 500 of those have now been transferred to a number of private companies through various lease agreements, according to the press service of the state-run railway operator. Most of the bar menus posted online by dining car operators this week still include strong alcoholic beverages, ranging from cheap vodka to luxury cognac and whiskey. Experts say, however, that with the new law all dining car operators would have to pull strong alcoholic drinks from the menu and restrict the customers’ choice to beer and wine.

Dining car operators are not giving up without a fight. In February this year, a number of companies with stakes in dining cars sent a letter to Igor Chuyan, the head of the new Federal Alcohol Market Regulatory Service, requesting clarification on the legality of the ban, the RBC Daily reported. But the regulator has so far stuck to its guns. Deputy Head of the service Vadim Spirin reiterated in a March 23 letter that alcohol drinks stronger than 16.5 degrees are prohibited in dining cars located in both intercity and international transport. “In other words,” wrote the paper, “vodka and cognac in the dining cars remained outlawed.”

In an about-face, Victor Zvagelsky, who had worked hard to enact the anti-alcohol legislation, said the intention had been to treat dining cars as ordinary food service establishments, where the sale of strong alcoholic drinks is permitted as long as owners have licenses. He said he would not rule out introducing new amendments that would allow the sale of strong alcoholic drinks in dining cars if owners face court actions. “If they face litigation for selling strong alcoholic drinks, we’d be prepared to meet them half-way,” said Zvagelsky, who heads the Russian Parliament’s Subcommittee on Economic Relations.

Industry executives are trying to put a positive spin on the situation, even while regarding it as a dead-end. “Those who drafted the law simply forgot to protect our interests,” quipped Vladimir Sokolov, the CEO of Grand Service Express, whose company runs a high-class train services with luxury-class wagons between Moscow and St. Petersburg. “I believe this is an oversight and not a deliberate attempt to harm our business. It’s probably because state officials rarely use the trains nowadays.”

Sokolov said his company has already taken strong alcoholic beverages off its drinks menu. “We are a law-abiding company and will comply with all requirements of the law,” he said. But others were not so light-hearted. “The situation surrounding the sale of alcohol in the dining cars once again shows the imperfection of amendments to the alcohol law adopted last year,” said Vadim Drobiz, the director of the Center for Research into Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets. “If one takes the law literally, owners of the restaurant cars would have to obtain the consent of the local authorities in every region their trains pass through in order to sell wine or beer,” Drobiz said.

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