Russia Leads the World . . . In Alcohol Mortality

Paul Goble reports:

Moscow officials were quick to grasp at a recent report that suggested Russians were not consuming as put alcohol per capita as many European countries, but a new examination of the data shows that the amount and kinds of alcohol Russians consume and the way they consume it means that they have the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the world. In advance of the release of an international investigation of alcohol consumption in the Russian Federation, Dar’ya Khalturina, a senior Moscow specialist on alcohol consumption, told Gazeta that high levels of alcohol consumption and binge drinking among Russians entail tragic consequences for that society.

The notion, frequently put about by Russian officials and journalists, that foreign experts are “intentionally” trying to make the situation in Russia look worse is something “to put it mildly that does not correspond to reality, Khalturina said. Russians consume an enormous amount of alcohol, and they do so in ways that maximize its negative consequences. According to the Russian government, Russian adults consume 10 liters of pure alcohol from all sources a year, but in fact, they consume at least 15 liters with men consuming far more than women. The first figure puts Russia in the top 50 of all countries, but the second puts it in the top five and possibly higher still, the Moscow scholar said. These figures alone go a long way to explaining the fact that alcohol was directly responsible for 25,000 premature deaths last year (down from 38,000 in 2004) and indirectly responsible for many others. Even the first figure means that Russia has the highest mortality rate from alcohol in the world.

But the impact of the amount Russians consume is exacerbated by the way they consume it. Russians tend to drink to get drunk, a pattern that not only boosts deaths from a wide variety of illness but increases accidents and crime while significantly cutting the birthrate – all matters of a concern in a country now obsessed with its demographic decline. Just how large an impact cutting alcohol consumption can have, Khalturina said, can be seen in an examination of Mikhail Gorbachev’s hated anti-alcohol campaign. That effort increased life expectancy among Russian men by five years to the highest point in history. And it led to an immediate upsurge in the birthrate, the echo of which Russians are seeing today. Unfortunately, she continued, “politically this campaign did not succeed.” It was imposed too quickly and too brutally, something that guaranteed that it would not last. And “even know sociologists do not know what would have been the situation in the country if the anti-alcohol campaign had lasted not three years [as it did] but for example eight years.” In fact, she said, “it is possible that if the leadership of the country had carried out this program to its logical conclusion, we would not have an entirely different society.” Thus, “the lesson of the Gorbachev reform is that it is necessary to reduce the consumption of alcoholic drinks in Russia, but it must be done more smoothly and with not so radical methods.

The government must adopt new policies, she argued, because it cannot count on rising incomes to solve the problem as many now think. Alcohol consumption is linked not so much to incomes as to education: Those whose incomes rise will consume more or better quality alcohol; only those with more education will drink less. Among the measures Khalturina recommends for consideration are: higher taxes on alcoholic drinks so that a bottle of vodka will cost eight to ten times that of less strong drinks. Vodka should be something, she says “which a man can permit himself to consume but not every day.” Moreover, the government should restrict the sale of alcohol at night, increase the struggle against the production and sale of illegal alcohol, combat the sale of alcohol to minors (Only one of every eight who tries to buy alcohol is refused, she said.), and launch a propaganda effort against drinking in general and binge drinking in particular. And Khalturina continued, the government should explore cutting the amount of alcohol in medications, introducing a state monopoly on the production and sale of alcoholic beverages and improving the cure rate for alcoholics, given that one in ten of adult Russian men can now be classified as a victim of that disease.

Given the impact of alcohol on Russia’s demographic situation, the Moscow expert said, all these and others as well should be considered and tried out. Unfortunately, she continued, in Russia today, as a result of changes in the 1990s, the alcohol lobby is “very strong” while the anti-alcohol movement remains relatively weak. Nonetheless, the facts are on its side, something Russia’s rulers must recognize is they are to find a way out of the demographic dead end their country is now in.

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