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The terrible cost of Russia’s love affair with vodka was laid bare in a study published yesterday. It blamed alcohol addiction for more than half of all deaths among Russians in their prime years and said that the scale of the carnage was comparable to a war.
The report, which appeared in The Lancet, said that three quarters of deaths among men and half of deaths among women aged 15-54 were attributable to alcohol abuse. The mortality rate in Russia in this age group was five times higher for men and three times higher for women than in Western Europe.
Professor David Zaridze, who led the international research team, calculated that alcohol had killed three million Russians since Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to restrict sales in 1987. He added: “This loss is similar to that of a war.”
The study analysed the deaths of almost 49,000 people between 1990 and 2001 in Tomsk, Barnaul and Biysk, three industrial cities in Siberia with typical mortality rates. It concluded that alcohol was the cause of 52 per cent of mortalities; 13 times greater than the worldwide average.
The Russian, British and French researchers said that “excess mortality from liver cancer, throat cancer, liver disease and pancreatic disease is largely or wholly because alcohol caused the disease that caused death”.
The findings will fuel the debate about a slump in life expectancy in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly among men. The average Russian man now lives little more than 60 years, compared with 77 years for men in Western Europe, while Russian women die on average at 73, nine years earlier than their European counterparts.
Soaring poverty and stress associated with the Soviet collapse, and the loss of jobs and security, have been blamed. The study highlighted a doubling of alcohol consumption in seven years between 1987 and 1994 to about 10.5 litres annually per person.
“Alcohol consumption is always connected with poverty. It’s been associated with social crisis. If we take our mortality statistics, it will be obvious that it’s parallel to our social crisis,” said Professor Zaridze, head of the Russian Cancer Research Centre.
Consumption has continued to rise sharply. A report in 2007 by Gennadi Onishchenko, the Chief Public Health Officer, said that Russians were drinking the equivalent of 15 litres of pure alcohol each year. His report said that almost 30,000 people died annually from alcohol poisioning and that at least 2.3 million people were alcoholics.
Attempts to limit Russians’ thirst have never enjoyed much success. Mr Gorbachev almost lost public support for his reforms by launching an antialcohol campaign in 1985, whichmerely encouraged a black market and put a hole in the state budget from lost revenues on official sales.
As President, Vladimir Putin ordered the introduction of a strict licensing system to fight illicit alcohol sales. It provoked complaints that poorer Russians were risking death by turning to industrial cleaners.
Even so, vodka remains remarkably cheap by European standards and supermarket shelves are lined with brands costing as little as £2 per bottle. Beer sales have tripled since 1998, but most do not regard beer as a “serious” alcoholic drink and it is common to see people consuming a bottle on their way to work in the mornings.
Drink that bites back
• Vodka can be produced from grain, potatoes, molasses, beets or other plants
• The name comes from the Russian word woda meaning water
• Normal vodka is about 40 per cent alcohol but the Balkan brand comes in at 88 per cent
• Deadly fake vodka, often made from industrial wood alcohol, has plagued Russia and Eastern Europe in recent years since production was liberalised
Sources: Vodka Museum; Times database
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