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Beer is bad for you? Kiril Pavlov seemed a little dazed by the idea.

He shook his head vigorously, as if trying to dislodge the thought.

"Beer is not bad for your health," the 19-year-old said firmly, setting a bottle of the stuff on the sidewalk so as to focus on the debate. "Scientists proved that beer is very good for your health. I saw it on television."

As he spoke, some of the teenagers sitting around him snickered. But others nodded seriously. In Russia, the point Mr. Pavlov was mulling is controversial.

Legislators in the Duma, or parliament, are stuck on the same issue: In a country that has long battled addictions to stronger stuff -- namely, vodka -- is beer worth worrying about?

Under Russian law, beer -- even a brand containing 9-per-cent or 10-per-cent alcohol -- is considered a "light alcoholic" drink. Anyone of any age can buy it and nearly anyone can sell it.

Advertisements are unrestricted, often promoting the suggestion that beer will make you healthier or even smarter if you drink enough.

At the urging of the City of Moscow, the Duma is considering labelling beer a full-fledged alcoholic beverage, a change that would restrict where beer can be sold and how it can be advertised. Most dramatically, to buy a beer you would have to be at least 18 years old.

"Young people think beer is not alcohol, so they've been drinking it all their lives," said Vladislav Kiselyev, a spokesman for the Moscow City Duma, which forwarded to parliament a bill to declare beer alcoholic. "You see children drinking beer on their way to school."

He said the city has no statistics on how much beer is being drunk by youths but added that doctors say "beer alcoholism" among children is a major health problem.

A clinic for child alcoholics recently opened in Moscow, the first to target eight- to 13-year-olds.

The law would represent a full-scale reversal of the country's attitude to beer, which heavier drinkers regard as something you have with breakfast.

A popular Russian saying has it that drinking beer without vodka is like throwing money into the wind. The implication is that beer on its own will not get you drunk enough to bother.

Until recently, the government agreed. Nine years ago, when a law was drafted to regulate the advertising and sale of alcohol, beer was intentionally left off the list of alcoholic beverages.

Lobbyists had argued that regulation could kill Russia's fledgling brewing industry.

As a result, Heineken and Miller Genuine Draft, as well as popular local brands, such as Baltika, Bochkarev and Nevskoye, sit alongside orange juice and milk at kiosks, hot-dog stands and bus stops around the country.

They often are sold in the same plastic two-litre bottles used by soft-drink makers in North America.

For a long time, beer was the least of Russia's concerns; when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, it accounted for only a tiny percentage of the country's rampant alcohol consumption.

But once free of regulatory constraints, the brewing industry exploded.

From 2000 to 2003, beer consumption nearly doubled, to 51 litres a person from 27.

Beer sales in 2002 eclipsed those of vodka for the first time.

Past efforts to change beer's legal status were defeated by a hostile Duma, but the bill has support from a brewing industry that finally agrees there is a problem.

"This time, they've said that they're interested, that they also would like to regulate this market," Mr. Kiselyev said.

Pavel Shapkin, head of the National Alcohol Association, a producers' lobby, said most of his colleagues believe consumption needs to be reined in, though many doubt the measures will be effective.

"It's not in the interests of anyone in Russia, and not in our industry's interests, to have beer sold at any place to anyone and to have beer commercials shown practically in the middle of children's programs," Mr. Shapkin said.

Russians realized over the past decade that "beer is a starting drink for future alcoholics," he added.

Still, not everyone is on board. Some in the beer industry believe that if children are drinking more beer they are healthier because they must be drinking less vodka.

They suspect that the drive to regulate beer is funded by vodka distillers, who are seeing their market share erode as beer's popularity grows.

"This is a foolish draft law," said Vladislav Shkop, director of Moscow's Ostankino brewery.

Rising beer consumption, he added, is an indicator of social progress.