MOSCOW -- Russia's top health official said Monday that drinking and driving don't mix – even when the drink in question is kefir, a fermented milk beverage containing less than one percent alcohol.
The comments by Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary inspector, sparked an outburst of criticism and ridicule on Twitter. Dozens of users circulated a picture of a glass of kefir with the caption, "Kefir? NO! I'm driving!"
Officials have scrambling to condemn drunk driving since an intoxicated driver in September killed seven people, including five orphans, after crashing into a bus stop in Moscow. Some lawmakers have proposed life sentences for drivers who cause death while under the influence. One has said drunk driving is a bigger threat than terrorism.
During a hearing of the Public Chamber, a governmental oversight body, on a proposal to raise the minimum blood-alcohol level for drivers, Onishchenko said kefir lovers "should decide – are you going to get behind the wheel, or drink kefir?"
"Here's a guy who loves kefir, poor baby, we've curbed his rights," Onishchenko went on. "But what about when he kills our children and our citizens?"
Getting drunk off kefir is practically impossible.
The comments mark an about-face for Onishchenko, previously a staunch supporter of kefir. During record heat waves in 2010, Onishchenko suggested that traffic policemen in southern Russia drink kefir to stay cool. Last year he suggested Russians choose the healthier option of kefir over sugar-filled, foreign-made soft drinks.
Russia's tolerated blood-alcohol level for drivers is zero, which means people who take certain medications or drink kefir can be found guilty of drunk driving. Critics allege that the law encourages police corruption, and have called for the level to be raised.
About 30,000 Russians die in road accidents each year – about the same as in the European Union, which has three times as many people and six times as many cars. Only 1,000 of those are caused by drunk driving, according to official statistics, but given lax police enforcement, the real total is widely believed to be much higher.
Onishchenko is regularly mocked for supposed health concerns that curiously coincide with political disputes. He has issued blanket bans on Georgian wine and mineral water and Ukrainian cheese amid Russian spats with those countries. As the Kremlin issued increasingly anti-American pronouncements this summer, Onishchenko implored Russians not to eat hamburgers, which he said were "not our food."
And as Moscow prepared for unprecedented protests against President Vladimir Putin in December, Onishchenko warned Russians away from taking to the streets for fear of catching cold.