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Gorbachev urges new anti-drinking campaign in Russia

MOSCOW, June 30 (RIA Novosti) - Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of sweeping reforms in the late 1980s including measures to fight alcoholism, said Russia needs an extensive new campaign to cut drinking.

Appearing on a Channel One television talk show late on Monday, Gorbachev cited the World Health Organization, which said a country that makes 18 liters of alcohol per capita is destroying itself.

Gorbachev said Russia was close to 17 liters per capita already.

"This means we are destroying ourselves, and then we will look for who destroyed our country, who made us drink," Gorbachev said. "The situation is such that we must take control of the process."

A study by an international team of health researchers published earlier this month by the Lancet shows the devastating impact of alcohol abuse in Russia. It says drinking caused 52% of deaths among Russians aged 15 to 54 following the Soviet collapse.

Less than 4% of deaths are caused by alcohol abuse worldwide, according to the study by Russian, British and French researchers published in the British medical journal. Some experts have argued that the social and economic shocks of the late 1980s and 1990s drove people in Russia to drink.

Russia and some of its East European neighbors still have the world's highest levels of alcohol consumption, according to another study also published by the Lancet.

Gorbachev moved to defend his crackdown on alcohol consumption in the 1980s, when prices for vodka and other alcohol beverages were raised, sales restricted and many shops closed.

The alcohol reform was pursued vigorously and cut sales and government revenues, while hectares of valuable vineyards were burnt or dug up, and alcohol production moved to the black market.

"Those were the right decisions, although I did not insist on the destruction of vineyards. Many vineyards were indeed ruined, but those were the steps directed against me. Almost all stores were closed in Moscow. As a result, it all turned into a joke," he said.

Gorbachev also said the decision to launch the anti-alcohol campaign was made long before he took the helm of the country, by his predecessors.

"When I came, everyone said Gorbachev had lost his mind. He just arrived and announced the anti-alcohol campaign. The decree had been prepared long before that!"

Gorbachev said the Soviet leadership had initially planned the so-called prohibition law, but he opted for the restrictions.

The Lancet said Gorbachev's 1985-1987 restrictions on alcohol production and sales saved a million lives and raised life expectancy by two years.