Say "nyet" to Russia's vodka for ladies

Considering the stats on women and drinking, this new booze is not all that cute.

Published March 20, 2008 4:00PM (EDT)

Is Russia poised for a feminist revolution, or a catastrophic rise in female alcoholism? A Reuters story about the creation of a vodka targeting female consumers suggests the latter. Broadsheet mentioned the story in a news roundup earlier this week, but it's worth further investigation. The article raises all the usual questions about products associated with masculinity -- smoking, drinking and shooting -- being repackaged for women. Like most products, the new Russian brand suggests its femininity through color (this time lavender instead of pink), slimness (of the bottle instead of, say, the cigarette) and sweet flavors (vanilla, lime and almond). Lest buyers make any mistake about its target market, the producer has oh-so-cleverly named the distilled potatoes and grains Damaskaya ("Ladies"). But in a country where an estimated 10 percent of the population is alcoholic and women already represent a sizable proportion of the nation's lushes, the article implies that the femmy trappings amount to a public health risk. One doctor told Reuters that he expects a rise in new patients about six months following the "Ladies" marketing blitz.

What's going on in Russia reflects a larger trend in women's alcohol consumption around the world. Not only are women drinking more -- according to one study, women in the U.K. and U.S. drank a third more alcohol in 2004 than in 1999. During this period many alcohol corporations have marketed heavily to women with liquors, alco-pops and regular booze disguised in feminine wiles.

Some have speculated that the rise in women's drinking has led to more female violence (eyeroll alert -- this from a British police chief evidently on the Ladette beat). Yet seen through the scrim of studies suggesting women are already more vulnerable to alcoholism, more at risk for alcohol-related accidents and diseases and less likely to be diagnosed with a drinking problem, these gentle, aestheticized products should be labeled what as they are: pernicious and not at all cute.

Ironically, the most successful of such campaigns, Virginia Slims' slogan "You've Come a Long Way, Baby," rode feminist coattails straight into women's pocketbooks. For a fascinating analysis of the success of Ms. Slims, check out this 1973 R.J. Reynolds document, which notes that Slims introduced in 1968 in the San Francisco Bay Area succeeded in an era when "housewives" were working more, had access to birth control and abortion, and "insist[ed] on a regular salary, not an allowance." Unfortunately, liberation doesn't always translate to enlightened behavior: Sometimes it means downing diet Bacardi breezers until you hurl, or sucking slim cigarettes until your lungs resemble blackened Swiss cheese.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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