Study links alcohol abuse to spike in Russian deaths

By Douglas Birch
Associated Press / June 26, 2009
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MOSCOW - Alcohol abuse has devastated Russia, with drinking causing more than half of deaths among Russians aged 15 to 54 in the turbulent era following the Soviet collapse, a team of public health researchers say.

The 52 percent figure compares with estimates that less than 4 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by alcohol abuse, according to the study by Russian, British, and French researchers published in today’s edition of the British medical journal The Lancet.

The Russian findings were based on a survey of almost 49,000 deaths between 1990 and 2001 among young adult and middle-aged Russians in three industrial towns in western Siberia, which had typical 1990s Russian mortality patterns.

Professor David Zaridze, head of the Russian Cancer Research Center and lead author of the study, estimated that the increase in alcohol consumption since 1987, the year when then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s restrictions on alcohol sales collapsed, cost the lives of 3 million Russians who would otherwise be alive today. “This loss is similar to that of a war,’’ Zaridze said.

Dr. Murray Feshbach, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and a leading expert on Russian public health, called the study “very impressive, very substantive’’ and the overall methodologically sound. He was not part of the research team.

The tragic die-off was largely invisible outside of Russia, but devastated Russian society. The study is part of a long-running debate among public health scientists as to the causes of an unprecedented spike in mortality in the post-Soviet era.

Some researchers have blamed the crumbling of the Soviet healthcare system, increased smoking, changes in diet, or a loss of jobs that raised stress levels for the mysterious rise in deaths.

Many others, such as Zaridze and his team, pin the blame on increased drinking, which the report says roughly doubled in Russia between 1987 and 1994 - from the equivalent of about 1.3 gallons of pure alcohol annually to about 2.8 gallons.