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Medicines Added to Shortages of Food, Gasoline, Tobacco

September 1, 1990

MOSCOW (AP) _ The Soviet Union is swiftly running out of essential medicines, angering consumers already beset by shortages of gasoline, tobacco and food.

″As early as next February, the country may run out of drugs completely, because the pharmaceutical industry is crumbling even more rapidly than the rest of the economy,″ Health Minister Igor Denisov warned Thursday.

″We have already seen tobacco riots,″ the workers’ newspaper Trud commented. ″Shall we now prepare for aspirin riots?″

Soviets are accustomed to permanent shortages of some goods, such as winter boots and automobile parts, and occasional shortages of many others, ranging from toothpaste to coffee.

But as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms have inched the Soviet Union toward a market economy, the resulting inflation and hoarding have worsened many of the perennial shortages and created new ones.

Drugs have never been plentiful, and Denisov said the industry is falling further behind. He told Trud the country met 52 percent of the domestic demand for medicine in 1985, but expects to meet only 39 percent this year and 30 percent in 1991.

In addition, the newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda said Thursday that Moscow faces a potential ″bread panic″ because bakeries are unable to keep up with the spurt in demand as residents return to the city after August vacations.

Gasoline has long been rationed in some Soviet cities, and even in Moscow supplies have rarely been ample. But the situation has grown acute in recent days as car owners have made a run on gas stations.

The evening television news program Vremya said drivers were reacting to rumors the Soviet Union may export more oil to take advantage of higher prices caused by the Persian Gulf crisis. In the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, Vremya said people were waiting in line all night to buy small amounts of fuel - even if it wasn’t the right kind for their cars.

″Car owners are panicking,″ the announcer said as the television showed people asleep in a line of cars.

A tobacco shortage that began in early summer has fueled street protests in half a dozen cities and rioting in Siberia. In Moscow, where rationing will limit residents to five packs a month starting Sept. 1, jars of cigarette butts are being sold by street vendors for $16.

″What are we worth?″ a reporter for Trud wrote indignantly. ″I don’t think there’s another country in the world, much less one that claims the title of a great power, where cigarette butts are sold in the markets of the capital -and where people would buy them 3/8″

Felix Sarnov, a 35-year-old chain smoker, said he spent a week without cigarettes and felt so ill he could hardly get out of bed.

″We’ve never been without tobacco before,″ he said. ″You can do without vegetables, various foods and things like that. But if you’re a smoker, cigarettes are your No. 1 need.″

On Wednesday, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev publicly berated five senior officials for allowing the tobacco crisis to develop. On Thursday, he fired First Deputy Prime Minister Vladilen Nikitin, who headed the state commission on foodstuffs and purchases.

Earlier this week, President Najibullah of Afghanistan sent a special plane with 4 million packs of cigarettes to the Soviet people, the government newspaper Izvestia reported.

Tass on Friday said cigarettes are among the items Moscow soon will purchase from Albania, ending a 29-year-old break in trade with that nation.

Reasons for the shortages are varied and murky, but they show that the old central planning system is in a state of collapse.

In the case of tobacco, harvests have dwindled, and a shortage of foreign currency in Soviet coffers forced a reduction in cigarette imports this year.

The health ministry has said of the medicine shortage only that the pharmaceutical industry is crumbling.

But observers say the Soviet Union has concentrated on producing a large volume of a few drugs, such as polio vaccine, that it can sell abroad for hard currency, while neglecting the needs of its population for birth control pills, stomach medications and headache remedies. Those items, as well as antibiotics and more specialized drugs, are in chronic short supply.

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