Vienna, April 12 – Russians now consume nearly three times as much alcohol per person as they did in 1990, a public health disaster that is being compounded by increased drinking among women and youth and increased use of alcoholic compounds not intended for human consumption.
According to the chief medical officer of the Russian Federation consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, Russians consumed 5.38 liters of pure alcohol per capita each year in 1990. Now, the official figure is 80 percent higher, but the actual one -- including moonshine and other substances – is nearly three times greater.
As a result, Gennadiy Onishchenko continues, there are now more than 2.3 million Russians suffering from alcoholism, roughly one in 60 of the country’s total population and one in 35 of those over the age of 18. And all too many of those suffering from this disease ultimately die of it or of related complications.
There was a slight improvement in mortality from alcohol poisoning between 2005 and 2006, he says, but deaths from this cause remain “impermissibly high and constitute some 12 percent for the country as a whole and up to 18 percent in some regions.
Mortality in Russia connected with the use and abuse of alcohol, however, has continued to rise. In 2003, Onishchenko reported, there were 58,495 alcohol-related deaths; in 2005, there were 62,447. Moreover, he said, the number of cases of “mass” alcohol poisoning increased dramatically over the last year.
(Onishchenko’s report, prepared for release in February but officially approved only a week ago by the Justice Ministry a week ago, is available online at http://www.rospotrebnadzor.ru/docs/decision/?id=924. A summary of its findings and recommendations can be found at http://www.politcom.ru/print.php?id=4413.)
In an official report summarized online, Onishchenko placed some of the blame on increases in both the mix of alcoholic beverages available and advertising for them. But part of the increase – and the official figures undoubtedly understate this – reflects consumption of things like perfume and household cleaners that contain alcohol.
Poorer and younger people especially drink these things, Onishchenko continued, and the consequences are dire, with tens of thousands of these consumers getting sick and many dying. In February of this year, he reported, 90 people died from such “drinks” in Moscow, the richest city in the country.
Russian firms are producing more light alcohol drinks, Onishchenko said, something many experts had thought would reduce vodka consumption. But that has not happened. While the amount of lighter beverages has increased three times over the last eight years, Onishchenko said, Russians’ drinking of hard liquor has gone up as well.
A particular source of concern, the consumer protection official said, is that women and very young people have dramatically increased their consumption of alcohol. Indeed, he continues, the average age of “the young alcoholic” has fallen from the 16 to 18 year age group to the 23 to 15 year old cohort.
The spreading of alcoholism, of course, has the most negative consequences for Russia’s demographic future, and consequently, Onishchenko calls for an expanded struggle against the illegal production and sale of alcohol as well as improved supervision of already registered factories and distributors.
He notes that his agency has taken extraordinary steps to protect consumers by inspecting existing factories and calling attention to violators. But despite successes on this front, Onishchenko concedes, Moscow appears to be fighting a losing battle against alcoholism
But Onishchenko does not want to concede defeat and called on regional governments to form special commissions to combat alcoholism, on the media to broadcast more on the evils of drink, and on schools to add “special courses on the harm alcohol can do.”
Nonetheless, the tone of Russia’s chief advocate for consumer protection is anything but optimistic: Moscow has tried all these things and more in the past and not succeeded in significantly reversing the dangerous trends that Onishchenko and others before him have described.