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Russia's vodka drinkers get New Year headache

An elderly Russian woman illegally sells vodka on a street, as she keeps a look-out for any police in downtown Moscow, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1998. Many elderly people sell goods in the streets trying boost their income. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev )

Ivan Sekretarev/Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Minimum prices for vodka took effect in Russia on Friday as part of President Dmitry Medvedev's campaign to combat alcoholism at a time when Russians traditionally drink heavily during the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays.

The price of the cheapest half-litre vodka bottle will nearly double to a new minimum of 89 roubles ($2.95 U.S.), according to the alcohol regulator's website www.fsrar.ru .

In the run-up to the New Year festivities, Moscow's supermarkets carried vast selections of vodka with luxury brands priced more than ten times above the new minimum. But elsewhere the cheapest vodka could be bought for 51 roubles.

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Russia's lengthy New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays, lasting from Jan. 1 to 11, are traditionally marked by bumper alcohol consumption.

Successive Russian and Soviet leaders have tried before to reduce the country's drinking habit, with alcoholism blamed for the low life expectancy of Russian men.

In August, Medvedev ordered tough measures to curb alcohol abuse, saying he was shocked by official data showing the average Russian drank 18 litres of pure alcohol each year.

Since then, Russia has moved to triple the excise duty on beer and is considering drastic limits on where and when beer can be sold, such as banning the sale on street side kiosks..

There are also plans to raise duties for vodka, but these are separate measures that do not take effect yet.

The government said the measures were aimed "to reduce the level of alcohol dependency of the population", when it announced the plans on Nov. 19.

The average monthly salary of 18,702 roubles ($651 U.S.) would have bought 368 bottles of the cheapest vodka available before the New Year in an online supermarket, but 210 bottles now.

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In 1985, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a war on the traditional evil of alcohol abuse, ordering dramatic cuts in the production of wines and spirits and introducing strict controls on public consumption of alcohol.

The campaign triggered a surge in illegal production of low-quality home-brewed booze and the curbs dealt a blow to the popularity of Mr. Gorbachev, the author of the liberal Soviet reform known as Perestroika.

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