Drinking alcohol not meant for consumption such as cologne and antiseptics may be responsible for nearly half of all deaths among working-age men in Russia, according to a study published Friday in The Lancet. “It’s an astounding finding,” said Sir Richard Peto, a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford University who was not connected to the study. While the scientists limited their research to the Russian city of Izhevsk, experts suspect the community is probably not atypical. “Evidence is emerging from other areas to suggest this is a nationwide problem,” Peto said.
The research suggests that despite Russia’s economic resurgence in the past decade, it still faces staggering social and health problems, especially in provincial areas far from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Dr. David Leon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and colleagues looked at all the deaths of men aged 25-54 in Izhevsk, a city in the Urals, from 2003 to 2005. They also interviewed the men’s close relatives to determine contributing factors, such as their health status, drinking habits and socio-economic class. Leon and his colleagues concluded that 43 percent of those deaths were caused by hazardous drinking.
Price and accessibility are major factors in the popularity of drinking cologne and other so-called “surrogate” alcohols. They cost a fraction of what vodka costs, and are available in the ubiquitous kiosks and pharmacies on Russian streets. The products also typically contain as much as 97 percent ethanol — compared with the 43 percent in Russian vodka.
Smoking and lower levels of education were both associated with markers of problem drinking. But whether men drank hazardous alcohol was the most potent predictor of mortality, said Leon. Men who did so had an approximately six-fold increase in death compared with men who did not.
Alcoholism has long been thought to be linked to mortality in Russia. Death rates dropped sharply in the mid-1980s when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced anti-alcoholism campaigns. And in a society that has a word for continual drunkenness lasting more than two days — zapoi — experts say the findings underline Russia’s problem with alcohol.
To address the problem, experts recommend higher taxes for alcohol and stricter regulation of how ethanol is used in products not meant for consumption. Though Russia has taken steps to limit the use of alcohol in colognes, they have not addressed the use of ethanol in medicines. Combating rampant alcoholism in Russia also will require a sea change in social mores that will undoubtedly take years, experts say. “Banning surrogate alcohols doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to get a population who are upright and sober,” Leon said. “But what you’ll get is a population that takes longer to kill themselves.”