John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
And the death figures go down whenever the country's government cracks down on alcohol sales.
Violence, accidents, suicide, disease – these are some of the things that cause premature death in one quarter of Russian men, and they all have one common link: vodka.
Researchers from Oxford University, the World Health Organization, and elsewhere have just released their latest update in a 15-year study of Russia's drinking habits, and it's not pretty. They conclude that 25 percent of Russian men perish before they hit age 55, as opposed to 7 percent of British men, and that this difference in death rates is mainly driven by tobacco and alcohol consumption. And that early-mortality estimate is conservative, according to one of the WHO scientists, Paul Brennan. "Because some who said they were light drinkers later became heavy drinkers, and vice-versa," he says, "the differences in mortality that we observed must substantially under-estimate the real hazards of persistent heavy drinking."
The researchers have been monitoring the vodka drinking of thousands of people in three cities, Tomsk, Barnaul, and Byisk. They also believe they've detected a link between alcohol-related deaths and the historical phases of the Russian government. Here's how they explain it:
"Russian death rates have fluctuated wildly over the past 30 years as alcohol restrictions and social stability varied under Presidents Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, and the main thing driving these wild fluctuations in death was vodka. This has been shown in retrospective studies, and now we've confirmed it in a big, reliable prospective study", said co-author Professor Sir Richard Peto from the University of Oxford, UK....
Whereas UK death rates at ages 15-54 years have been declining steadily since 1980, mainly because so many people in the UK have stopped smoking, Russian death rates at these ages have fluctuated sharply, approximately in line with alcohol consumption. For example, under Mikhail Gorbachev's 1985 alcohol restrictions, alcohol consumption fell rapidly by around 25% and so did the death rates. When communism collapsed, alcohol consumption went up steeply and so did the death rates. More recently, since the 2006 Russian alcohol policy reforms, the consumption of spirits has fallen by about a third and so has the risk of death before age 55, although that risk is still substantial (appendix, pages 3-6).
You can see the decrease in overall mortality following the 2006 booze reforms in this graph, as well as a similar drop after the Communist crackdown on alcohol in the mid-1980s. Interestingly, the collapse of the ruble in the late '90s was followed by rash of deaths:
The sharp post-2006 dip shows that regulations can help reverse the fatal trajectory of Russia's drinkers, says another scientist involved in the study, David Zaridze: "People who drink spirits in hazardous ways greatly reduce their risk of premature death as soon as they stop." As it stands now, the life expectancy for Russian men is among the lowest of the world's countries, at a mere 64 years. Perhaps because they binge-drink less, females fare much better at 76 years.
Top image: Pete Slater / Flickr