MOSCOW: Russia has signalled a renewed attempt to get to grips with rife alcoholism, as the government drafts a law that would raise taxes on beer by 300 per cent and ban its sale in the country’s ubiquitous kiosks.

The industry and trade ministry has drafted the law, following

last month’s order by President

Dmitry Medvedev for a range of

measures to battle what he termed a “national disaster”. The order followed a report by the public chamber, Russia’s chief oversight body, that found alcohol contributed to some 500,000 deaths each year — a figure 16 times higher than that cited by federal health officials.

The draft law targets beer, an

increasingly trendy drink in Russia but one that still lags far behind vodka in popularity. Many Russians doubt its alcoholic strength.

“Beer, if consumed in moderation and in the right circumstances,

cannot lead to alcoholism,” said Vladimir Kuznetsov, of the Russian Beer Producers’ Union.

The St Petersburg government submitted a similarly tough

amendment to the federal law

on alcohol this week, saying it

was “time to equate beer with an

alcohol product”.

Vodka accounted for 66 per cent of alcohol sales in 2008 and 50 per cent this year so far, according to state statistics. But as much as half of the vodka market is illegal and untaxed. Beer sales comprised 25 per cent of sales last year, 33 per cent this year. Russians consume around 18 litres of pure alcohol a year, more than twice the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum.

Medvedev gave his government until December to bring in measures to combat alcohol abuse, complaining that efforts over the past seven years have done little to change Russia’s cavalier and self-destructive relationship with alcohol. Critics of the planned law say it will only depress small and medium sized businesses, a sector Medvedev has signalled as one most deserving of support.

Beer sales accounted for more than 40 per cent of kiosk revenue, Kuznetsov said. He warned the anti-beer initiative could “contribute to the increase of unemployment and social disturbance”.

Foreign beer producers will also suffer. Russia is the third-largest beer market in the world, after China and the US, and 80 per cent of beer on the market is foreign-made.

Among those who stand to benefit are producers of harder spirits.