Cheap and illicit alcohol kills more than half Russian men and women in their most productive years and the government must act urgently to reverse the trend, a study to be published in The Lancet at the weekend said.
“Excessive alcohol consumption in Russia, particularly by men, has in several recent years caused more than half of all the deaths at ages of 15-54 years,” the Lancet article said. The research conducted in three industrial cities — Tomsk, Barnaul and Biysk — said “excess mortality from liver cancer, throat cancer, liver disease, and pancreatic disease is largely or wholly because alcohol caused the disease that caused death”.
High mortality from tuberculosis and pneumonia may be partly a result of increased exposure to infection, weak immunity, or decreased likelihood of cure, the research found.
Russia’s mortality rate in people aged 15-54 years was more than five times higher for men and three times higher for women than in Western Europe, the study showed.
Alcohol is responsible for about three quarters of the deaths of all Russian men aged 15-54 and about half of all deaths of Russian women of the same age, the data showed.
. . . .
He estimated Russia had some 2.5 million registered alcoholics and about the same number of unregistered ones.
“Drunkards, not alcoholics, are the main threat to demography,” Nemtsov told Reuters. “Heavy drinkers make up 40 percent of Russian males, but this figure may be bigger.” The proportion of male and female drinkers is 4 to 1, he said. [The distinction between drunkards and alcoholics is a new one on me, but I think I understand the difference in this context.]
Thirty-thousand people — twice the number the Soviet Union lost during its 10-year war in Afghanistan — die from alcohol poisoning in Russia each year.
To put the last statistic in context, in the United States, the total number of accidental poisoning deaths from all causes in 2004 was 20,950. And that in a nation with more than twice the population as Russia. In 1996-1998, there was an average of 317 deaths attributed primarily to alcohol poisoning, with another 1,076 deaths where alcohol poisoning was a contributing cause. So, roughly speaking, there are at least 25 times more deaths from alcohol poisoning in Russia, with a population of less than half that of the US–making a 50 fold difference in the rate of such deaths between the two countries.
I know there are those who deny that this is germane to Russia’s demographic prospects, since from a purely biological perspective it is the female population that is the constraint on the number of births. However, the article notes that although Russian male death rates are an appalling 5 times greater than Western European rates, Russian female death rates are still 3 times greater, which is a demographic drag. Moreover, moving beyond the purely biological, it must be remembered that there is a choice component to fertility, and fertility choices depend in part on economic prospects. Women will be far more reluctant to have children when there is a substantial risk of the premature death or incapacitation of their spouse, not to mention the fact that the earning potential of alcoholics (and drunkards!) is impaired (no pun intended) even if they survive, not to mention that the prospect of living with a drunk and the associated pathologies hardly encourages thoughts of children. (And what of the torment of the children that these men do father?)
I know there will be some readers that think otherwise, but I don’t write this out of a desire to point out Russian failings. I find the whole thing truly horrifying and sickening and tragic. I can only wonder at what leads so many people to destroy their lives in this way. It really is beyond my comprehension. But it cannot say anything good about the spiritual health (again no pun intended) of Russia. Instead, it suggests a profound unhappiness and widespread despair. How can people brag about “Russia getting off its knees” when a good portion of the population–more than 40 percent of the men–are face first in the gutter in a drunken stupor? And what drives them there in the first place?
But what is even more incomprehensible to me is that this appears to be a low priority for the government–if it is a priority at all. The problem is sometimes recognized, but there seems to be little effort to address it. Putin has admitted the problem, but he merely recommends that “Russians should drink less.” I guess he has more important things to do, like lowering the price of pork chops. You cannot make this stuff up.
So, out of genuine curiosity and concern (believe it or not), I ask all self-styled Russophiles: What explains this social catastrophe? What should be done about it? And why isn’t the government doing it?