The statistics on alcohol-related deaths in Russia are staggering. A study by Vladimir Shkolnikov at Germany's Max Planck Institute indicates the deaths of as many as 43 percent of working-age Russian men can be attributed to alcohol. This includes murders, suicides and accidents due to intoxication.
According to Shkolnikov, heavy drinking reduces by 42 percent the chances a 20-year-old Russian man will live to age 60. This figure was cited at a Moscow news conference by Artem Gil, co-chairman of the Russian Coalition for Alcohol Control. Gil says the human loss has serious consequences for Russia.
Artem Gil - Co-Chairman, Russian Coalition for Alcohol Control, VOA Photo by Peter Fedynsky
Gil says premature deaths are claiming that segment of society, which has knowledge, experience, and the ability to transfer them to the next generation. He notes the victims are important people who could shape the intelligence and future potential of Russia.
The president of the Russian Evidentiary Medicine Association, Kyrill Danyshevsky, says vodka is four-and-one-half times cheaper in Russia than in Northern Europe. He says high excise taxes in Northern Europe discourage heavy liquor in favor of wine and beer. But beer in Russia is two-and-one-half times more expensive than in Northern Europe.
He adds that an estimated 500 distilleries across Russia as well as individual moonshiners produce a flood of illegal vodka, which sells at half the price of the cheapest legal product, which is inexpensive to begin with. The problem, says Danyshevsky, is compounded by alcohol in such products as inexpensive perfumes, pharmaceuticals, and household cleansers, which are purchased by those too poor to buy regular liquor.
Danyshevsky says several lawmakers own their own breweries. And he claims there are indications that a large percentage of the liquor market is controlled by friends of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Danyshevsky adds that lobbyists for the alcohol industry, including pharmaceutical and household chemical companies, use an unexpected argument against excise taxes.
Danyshevsky says the brand lobbyists use to push their interests is freedom - freedom of choice. He says one can see television beer advertising, and liquor companies use product placement on Russian soap operas, which are financed on major Russian television networks mostly by distillers. The message, according to Danyshevsky is that alcohol is the choice of free people.
But many Russians who exercise that choice are likely to die soon. The director of the psychiatric research institute at the Russian Health Ministry, Alexander Nemtsov, says statistics indicate alcohol-related deaths peak during the first week of January between New Years Day and Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. February tends to see a decline as people take a rest from drinking, which resumes on other major holidays, including Easter and Victory Day on May 9th. Summer months see a decline.
Nemtsov explains what drives the sociology of alcoholism in Russia today.
He says the factors are poverty, unemployment, despair and life in Russia's dying towns. The problem worsens from south to north and west to east, and is most serious in the Far East. He notes that illegal production of vodka drastically reduces the price, further complicating efforts to increase excise taxes on legal production.
Nemtsov says illicit production expanded during the 1980s when former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign reduced availability of legal liquor. But Kyrill Danyshevsky notes that campaign resulted in a slightly higher birth rate, which is being repeated as women born during that period bear children of their own.