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Alcohol Responsible for Over Half of Russian Deaths in One Decade

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More than half of deaths among Russians ages 15 to 54 were attributable to alcohol consumption during the 10-year period following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, compared to less than 4 percent worldwide, according to a new study led by the Russian Cancer Research Center.

The Associated Press reported June 25 that researchers found that the causes of deaths of nearly 49,000 individuals from three industrial cities in western Siberia were strongly associated with high levels of alcohol abuse, including alcohol poisoning, trauma, pneumonia, and liver disease.

The report noted that alcohol consumption roughly doubled in Russia between 1987 and 1994 — from the equivalent of about 1.3 gallons of pure alcohol per capita annually to about 2.8 gallons, almost twice the global average. The study showed that this rise in consumption correlated with an increase in mortality.

Other researchers have attributed the unprecedented increase in mortality after the Soviet Union’s fall to factors such as increased smoking, changes in diet, or job losses and related stress. 

The researchers in this study place the blame squarely on alcohol, however, noting that that from 1985 to 1987 mortality rates declined sharply after Mikhail Gorbachev placed restrictions on alcohol sales. When these curbs were lifted, death rates soared, they found.

David Zaridze, lead author of the study, conjectured that if the sales restrictions had not been lifted, three million Russians would still be alive today.

Russia’s premature adult mortality rate is far greater than for western Europe’s, according to the U.N.’s National Human Development Report, which showed that males born in Russia can expect to live to age 60, while the average western European man could expect to live to 77. A Russian woman could expect to live to about age 72, while a western European woman could expect to live to 82, according to the U.N.

The study also noted that by 2000 the chances of a 15-year-old western European boy dying by age 35 was one in 50, but for a Russian boy the odds were one in 10, a fact the authors attributed to the high level of alcohol consumption in that country.

The study appears in the June 27, 2009 issue of The Lancet.

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