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Russian Health Going Down With Vodka

In Russia, vodka is a killer. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS.

MOSCOW, Feb 15 2014 (IPS) - Sitting in the dining room of a Moscow hotel, manager Yulia Golovanova explains why she always likes to see Russians, rather than foreigners, bring guests in.

“Just watch them,” she says as eight well-dressed men sit down at a table and immediately order vodka. “They come in, order round after round of vodka and keep on drinking. When there’s a big group of them they can spend huge amounts on alcohol alone,” she tells IPS.

A quarter of Russian men die before they are 55, with most deaths down to alcohol consumption.

Less than an hour later the men have each consumed at least a quarter of a litre of vodka as well as glasses of beer and wine and show no signs of stopping.

The scene – a group of men drinking large quantities of hard spirits – is far from uncommon in a country with one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the world and where alcoholic overindulgence is ingrained in the culture.

But drinking in Russia has, over the years, taken a massive toll on the country, and, left unchecked could have disastrous consequences, experts say.

Tatiana Mironova, director of the Moscow-based National Centre for Public Health Monitoring, which works to reduce alcohol abuse, tells IPS: “If nothing changes or if alcohol consumption gets worse, the negative effects of drinking, in terms of the health burden and associated social problems such as domestic violence and others, will only get worse.”

Data on drinking in Russia paints a grim picture. The Russian Health Ministry says alcohol consumption per capita is 13.5 litres – twice the global average and well above the nine-litre mark which the World Health Organisation considers dangerous.

A study by the Lancet medical magazine published last month showed that a quarter of Russian men die before they are 55, with most deaths down to alcohol consumption. In comparison, the figure in the United Kingdom is seven percent and in the United States just one percent.

Experts say that what makes Russia’s problem unique is the way people drink with a prevalence of binge drinking and a preference for spirits.

While its alcohol consumption rate is actually lower than some European states, the main drink of choice in Russia, especially among men, is vodka. And it is often drunk in binges.

The effects of the country’s problem with alcohol abuse are stark. Apart from the fact that the premature death rates contribute to Russia’s already shrinking population, the Russian government estimates that the economy loses up to 100 billion dollars per year to drinking.

Other studies have suggested that as many as three-quarters of murders are committed, and almost half of suicides occur, under the influence of alcohol. Drink also plays a role in an overwhelming number of deaths from drowning, fires and falls. Law enforcement bodies say it plays a significant role in high rates of criminality, domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

“Both government and wider society are aware of the direct relationship between alcohol consumption and social problems,” says Mironova.

Sociologists often cite Russians’ propensity for heavy drinking to a need – dating back throughout the nation’s history – for people to escape from widespread poverty and repressive regimes. Its historically low price and ubiquity has also meant it has always been easily accessible to the wider population. Vodka now costs just 4.50 dollars for half a litre and that price has only recently been raised.

Heavy drinking and rampant alcoholism across the country have been well documented from tsarist times right through the communist era to today’s capitalist society.

Authorities have attempted to deal with them. As far back as 1985, then general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a series of measures cutting alcohol production, restricting sales and hiking prices.

While enormously unpopular with the public, the restrictions had an immediate impact on national health. Alcohol intake in the country fell by 25 percent, as did the premature death rate.

Following the lifting of those restrictions and the break-up of the Soviet Union, drinking soared once more, and with it premature death rates.

In recent years the Kremlin has looked to cut dangerous alcohol consumption once more, and a series of laws restricting sale, pricing and advertising of alcohol have been brought in.

The restrictions appear to be having some success. The Lancet study shows that while the premature death rate remained very high – more than four times the Western European average – it dropped one-third since 2006 when restrictions on alcohol were first introduced. Consumption of spirits fell by the same amount in the same time.

Professor Sir Richard Peto, an epidemiologist at Oxford University in the UK and co-author of the study, tells IPS: “This illustrates that the changes introduced since 2005 have had an effect and that, with more effort, the premature death rate [from alcohol] can be reduced further. It is not impossible.”

Experts agree that raising prices is crucial to any further success while controls on advertising and sales need to be strictly maintained or tightened even further.

But that alone will not be enough, they say.

“What is needed is not only measures to limit the marketing and sale of alcoholic products, but also active efforts to reduce the demand for alcoholic products. There need to be preventive and educational measures among people as well as prevention of alcohol abuse in the workplace and in primary health care,” Mironova says.

The government seems committed to improving the health of the nation. Besides the vodka restrictions it has recently banned smoking in public places and put restrictions on tobacco advertising and sales.

Health ministry plans envisage further rises in vodka prices up until at least next year. The ministry says it wants to see annual consumption of spirits reduced to eight litres per person.

How successful that will be in a country where many locals readily admit that massive consumption of spirits is an integral part of their culture is hard to predict.

At her restaurant, Golovanova quietly watches the businessmen order more shots of vodka. “Drinking causes so many problems in Russia, but many Russians just don’t see drinking heavily as a problem,” she tells IPS. “They see it as something completely normal.”

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