MOSCOW — A big question in Russia in 2013 may be, “How do I get a beer around here?”
Under a law that took effect on New Year's Day, selling beer at the ubiquitous kiosks that mushroomed along Russian sidewalks and roadsides after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been banned. Though the tiny makeshift shops lost their importance as conventional stores got more of a foothold, new laws could deal a finishing blow to a symbol of the country’s lively and disorderly post-communist free market.
In a measure meant to address Russia’s high rate of problem drinking, beer now can be purchased only at restaurants, cafes and stores of at least about 500 square feet. The law also changes beer’s classification from a food to an alcoholic beverage, meaning it can’t be sold in any store from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. It also cracks down on casual consumption of alcohol, forbidding it in public spaces.
With the growing presence of supermarkets and sizable neighborhood food stores, the ban on beer sales at kiosks may mean no more than a couple blocks’ extra walking for someone seized by a sudden thirst. But it may harshly dry up income for kiosk operators.
Experts estimate that beer accounted for about 40 percent of the revenue of kiosks that sold it, according to the Interfax news agency.
“It appears that all this volume will be nicely absorbed by stores. I think that more than a third of the small retail establishments in Russia unequivocally will close,” Vadim Drobiz, director of the Research Center for Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets, was quoted as saying by the news.mail.ru news website.
More trouble for kiosk operators appears to be on the way. The lower house of parliament has given preliminary approval to a bill that would ban the sale of cigarettes at kiosks and small stands.
If the cigarette sales ban comes into effect on top of the beer sales prohibition, about 175,000 kiosks across the country could be forced to close, at the cost of some 500,000 jobs, the Ministry for Economic Development estimates, according to Interfax.
Heavy drinking and smoking are cited as two of the main factors in Russia’s high mortality rate — average life expectancy for males born in 2006 was 60 or 61, according to a U.N. Development Program report.
Russia has already banned smoking in most enclosed public spaces, and the government has increased the minimum prices for vodka.
On New Year's Day, the bottom price for a half-liter of vodka was raised by 36 percent, to approximately $5.50.
By Elaine Donnelly
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