Vienna, November 15 – Russian adults, according to Moscow officials, currently consume some 30 liters of pure alcohol every year, a figure that is more than three times what the World Health Organization says is dangerous and one that is eight times the amount Americans drink.
But because this official figure measures only officially registered distilled spirits and does not include additional liters of pure alcohol from illegally produced samogon (Russian for “moonshine”) or from what Russians call alcohol “surrogates,” the actual among of alcohol consumption among Russian adults may a third or more again higher.
As a result, as members of the Duma were told this week, such high rates of alcohol consumption now play a direct or indirect role in nearly one-third of all Russian deaths and thus constitute a threat not only to popular well being but also to that country’s national security.
During the course of a roundtable earlier this week, members of the Duma not only listened to reports about this general state of affairs but had their attention directed both at its specific features and what they might do to try to correct this situation (http://orthomed.ru/news.php?id=20505; www.gzt.ru/health/2007/11/13/220201.html).
According to the state statistical administration, something over 40,000 Russians die from alcoholism or alcohol poisoning each year, but the real impact of their heavy drinking on the country’s death rate is far larger, if not always understood or acknowledged.
Sustained heavy drinking leads to a variety of illness, murders and suicides, automobile and other accidents, and the disintegration of families, and all those things in turn are behind 550,000 to 700,000 of the 2.2 million deaths recorded in the Russian Federation on average in recent years.
But two additional elements to this story, the Duma deputies were told, make it especially tragic. On the one hand, Russians legally purchase 80 percent more alcohol than the country produces through their purchase of the large volume of alcoholic beverages now flooding into the country.
And on the other, they drink each year “not less than 600 million liters” of samogon, according to the Interior Ministry which is able to seize only about one percent of this amount, as well as unknown amounts of other surrogates like perfume or industrial fluids not intended for human consumption.
In relatively well-off Moscow, Russian experts say, illegally produced samogon and surrogates of one kind or another probably account for only about one-quarter of total amount offered for sale, but in poorer and more isolated regions of the country, that figure may now have reached the far more dangerous level of 40 or even 50 percent.
Although this does not appear to have been mentioned at the Duma meeting, that pattern is behind one slightly more optimistic prediction: As Russians become relatively better off because of higher oil prices, they drink more vodka but less samogon and surrogates, and thus they are less likely to die as a result.
That conclusion was first advanced by Russian demographers in the so-called Izhevsk study last year and reinforced by the subsequent experience of Pskov oblast. For a discussion of these findings, with citations to the original research, as well as of their policy implications, see http://mikhailove.livejournal.com/1819.html#cutid1.
Despite the comment of one participant at the roundtable that “laws do not work” in this sphere in Russia, the parliamentarians discussed what they might do legislatively. Among their ideas: raising the drinking age to 21, banning alcohol advertising, forced treatment of alcoholism, and a state monopoly on alcohol production.
Both individually and collectively these measures would have some impact on the amount of alcohol Russians consume and thus on the health of that nation, but many of the problems Russia faces now as in the past are the result of efforts by individual drinkers to get around just such laws, be they tsarist, Soviet or Russian.
And there is even the danger that such legislation, however attractive its staated purposes may be, could in fact make the situation worse by driving even more Russians away from officially produced and in smaller amounts relatively safe distilled spirits and toward more dangerous samogon and surrogates.