MOSCOW (Reuters) - Igor Volodin believes vodka is no more harmful than chocolate. He is proud to be the first Russian to produce the spirit in a special women's version, designed to be sipped with salad after a workout in the gym.
Touted as a glamour product for upwardly mobile women in booming Russia, Damskaya or "Ladies" vodka worries doctors, who fear a fresh wave of female alcoholics in a country already suffering one of the world's worst drink problems.
The Moscow Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry says Russia has 2.5 million registered alcoholics, but adds the real figure is seven times higher -- more than 10 percent of Russia's population of 142 million.
Yuri Sorokin, a psychologist running a Moscow rehabilitation centre for drug addicts and alcoholics, said 60 percent of those he treats for alcoholism are women, including the wives of Russian millionaires.
"I believe that female alcoholism is a huge problem in Russia. I believe it is as huge and hidden as the underwater part of an iceberg," he said.
Adverts for the new "Ladies" vodka show the elegant, violet-tinted bottle wearing a pleated white skirt which is blown upwards to reveal the label.
The images confront commuters on Moscow's metro, grab the eye on the street and leap from the pages of women's magazines.
"Between us, girls ..." runs the slogan on the adverts, which tout the product as an ideal tipple for hearty hen parties.
"Women need a drink of their own," said Volodin, sitting next to an array of his "Ladies" vodkas, which comes in lime, vanilla and almond flavors, or just straight for cocktails.
"In Moscow, there are pink taxis for ladies, there are light cigarettes," he said. "But there was no vodka, and we asked ourselves: 'Why?' ... More people suffer from diabetes in Russia than from alcoholism, but no one bans chocolate advertisements."
Sales on Russia's vodka market are estimated to be worth around $15 billion a year, with a total annual volume of some 2.2 billion liters, Volodin said.
Annual market growth in value is seen at 15 percent, he said, thanks to rising incomes and higher sales of premium vodkas like "Ladies."
Volodin heads the Deyros company, which has been selling strong spirits on the Russian market for more than 10 years.
"Ladies," launched in December, is produced at a distillery in Russia's second city of St Petersburg and retails at around 300 roubles ($12.5) in upmarket shops in big cities. Volodin is targeting successful, well-educated, married women with money.
"Of course, $12 per bottle is too expensive for a village woman," Volodin said, forecasting March sales of "Ladies" at 115,000 bottles and putting the 2008 full-year figure at over 2 million. "But we can't make bad vodka for women."
Volodin says his vodka is pure and free of by-products, like fusel oils, which can cause a heavy hangover. He says because of its mellow taste, it can be taken with salads and other light meals, even by those regularly working out in gyms.
Russia, buoyed by windfall revenues for oil, gas and metals exports, has enjoyed its biggest economic boom in a generation. Wages in the cash-laden economy have rocketed.
But high salaries and growing consumption of expensive alcohol have not led to moderation in drinking, said psychologist Sorokin.
The joblessness and despair of Russia's wild capitalism of the 1990s have now been replaced by the psychological vacuum of the newly-rich, he said.
Olga, a woman in her 20s, was buying a bottle of "Ladies" in an expensive supermarket in Moscow for a party with her friends.
"I saw the ad in the metro and decided to taste it," she said. "I just loved the design."
Sorokin said he expected an influx of new patients in about six months.
"When such strong marketing experts are involved, I will never be jobless," he sighed.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile