Vienna, June 26 – Extremely high mortality rates among Russian men in prime child-bearing ages, far larger than those in other developed countries and largely the result of alcohol consumption and drug abuse, are undercutting not only Moscow’s efforts to solve the country’s demographic problems by pro-natalist policies but its hopes to modernize the Russian economy.
Over the past few years, the Russian government has sought to boost the country’s birthrate but done little or nothing to cut the super-high mortality rates among Russian men. But now Moscow experts are pointing out that these mortality rates themselves among the working age population are themselves putting a brake on any increase in fertility rates.
Russian birthrates over the last 40 years have fallen to West European levels and are now well below the replacement level of 2.15 children per woman per lifetime. “But if in the West, women do not want to give birth in order to live as they want,” “Komsomolskaya Pravda” said this week, “Russian women cry with one voice: ‘there aren’t any men.’”
According the Moscow daily, there are currently a total of 22 million men aged 20to 40, the prime age cohorts for new fathers. “Of these,” however, “about 700,000 are in prison, 2.1 million are registered alcoholics—and how many of those are uncounted,” the paper asks. And there are 2.5 million drug addicts. As result, 5.3 million potential fathers are not really available.
But the situation is even worse, the paper says. The 2002 census found that there are 65,000 more married Russian women than married Russian men, a reflection of the growing preference for unregistered marriages in which women see themselves as married but men do not. Such unions produce fewer children than regular ones (www.kp.ru/daily/24316.3/508858/).
With fewer children being born and with working age men dying in large numbers, the Russian population is now aging rapidly as a result of the earlier and larger number of births after World War II. At present there are now 15 million more pensioners than young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
The average age of Russians has risen from 34 years in 1989 to 38.7 now and is projected by the United Nations to reach 50 by 2050, a figure that would mean that pensioners would make up 55 percent of the population. And that is leading some in Russia to pick up on Western arguments and talk about boosting the retirement age to 65.
But that is not a realistic possibility for Russia. As Yevgeny Gontmakher, the head of the Center of Social Policy of the Moscow Institute of Economics, points out, the health of Russians and especially Russian men at 60 is too poor to expect them to continue in the work place for five more years.
And even more, people at that age are “as a rule,” he says, much less well trained and far less productive than younger people. Consequently, boosting the retirement age as some in the US and Western Europe are urging given the burden of paying for pensions will not work in Russia.
All these constraints suggest that Moscow must focus on bringing down the super-high rates of mortality among working-age Russians and especially among working-age Russian men, something the powers that be there have done relatively little to do not only because it would be costly but because it would require radical changes in behavioral patterns among this age group.
Several reports this week highlight just how much the excessive consumption of alcohol and the use of illegal drugs are contributing to the super-high mortality rates among working-Russians and especially among working-age men, who live on average 13 years less than Russian women (www.infox.ru/science/human/2009/06/25/Uchyenyyye__polovina.phtml).
According to the latest research, some of which is published in the British medical journal, “The Lancet,” “the extraordinary consumption of alcohol, especially by [Russian] men in the last several years has been responsible for more than half of all deaths of [Russians] aged 15 to 54.”
At present, Moscow experts say Russians, “including children and old people,” are consuming 15 to 18 liters of pure alcohol per year, up from 6 liters in 1984 and twice the amount that the World Health Organization says will lead to serious medical and even genetic damage in a population.
And given that much of this consumption is concentrated among Russians aged 18 to 55, the actual rate of consumption of that cohort is much higher – some studies have suggested that it may be over 30 liters per year – and hence far more damaging, with experts saying each additional liter over eight cutting life expectancy by 11 months.
Most of the impact of this alcohol consumption – and Russian experts stress that the problem is more about people who drink too much than about genuine alcoholics – is concentrated among men, given that the number of heavy drinkers among Russian males is four times that of the number of such imbibers among women.
The negative impact of alcohol is now being exacerbated by the increasing and negative impact of drug use. There are two to 2.5 million drug users in Russia today, most between the ages of18 and 39. Their number is increasing by 220 every day, and the average age of their deaths is 28 (www.vz.ru/news/2009/6/26/301262.html and www.kp.ru/daily/24316/510127/).
In the face of this crisis, one that puts the future of Russia not only demographically but economically and even politically at risk, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acknowledged this week that alcohol consumption was a major problem but suggested only that “Russians should drink less” (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4A44AC95792B2).